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Northern Lights: Solar Storm Makes Spectacular Auroras Visible to Millions

Published: May 14, 2024
The Northern lights or aurora borealis illuminate the night sky in Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada during a geomagnetic storm on May 12, 2024. The most powerful solar storm in more than two decades struck Earth on May 10, 2024, triggering spectacular celestial light shows in skies from Tasmania to Britain -- and threatening possible disruptions to satellites and power grids as it persisted into the weekend. Auroras are often observed in Canada's northern regions, but rarely in southern Ontario. (Image: GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images)

A geomagnetic storm that has been producing a dazzling light show, known as the Northern Lights or by its technical name aurora borealis, over much of the northern hemisphere recently, and continued until the early hours of Wednesday, May 15.

The event, which resulted in disruptions to electronic infrastructure such as orbiting satellites, was captured by countless amateur and professional photographers alike, with social media filled with images of green-purple-red-hued night skies.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center issued another geomagnetic storm watch on May 14, forecasting that the Sun would continue to bombard Earth with higher-than-usual radiation. 

The eruptions, known as coronal mass ejections, produce the infamous light show when ejected solar matter interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field. 

The intensity of the lights were visible over much of North America including several northern U.S. states. 

Residents of Maine, Vermont, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and Washington could see the auroras assuming the cooperation of the weather and acceptable levels of light pollution.

In New York, cloudy weather made the Northern Lights difficult, if not impossible, to see for many.


Best chances to view

People with the best chances of seeing the phenomena were those further north, with the odds increasing the closer one’s location to the North Pole. It was easiest to see the lights from hilltops and away from sources of intense surface light, such as cities.

Auroras are separated into aurora borealis, which appear around the North Pole, and aurora australis, which are visible near the South Pole.

The phenomena began last Friday (May 10) when the Earth began to experience what experts called a “historic” geomagnetic storm, an event not seen in decades. 

This event was caused by a massive sunspot known as Region 3664.

These storms are more common during the solar maximum, the moment when the Sun’s magnetic poles flip, which is known to be associated with increased sunspots and solar flares that can send solar material hurtling towards earth. 

Forecasters predicted last year that the current cycle would peak sometime between January and October this year. 


Potential negative impacts

Power and communication companies around the globe were bracing for potential negative impacts from the storm which, in the past, has knocked out power to large swaths of the population and disrupted communications.

For example, a massive solar storm in March 1989 was blamed for hours-long power grid failures in the Canadian province of Quebec and caused interference to the United States power grid. 

Another geomagnetic storm in November 1991 produced a light show that could be seen as far south as Texas. 

The 1859 Carrington event, which occurred that September, is the most intense solar storm in recorded history. Auroras were visible as far south as Columbia, South America. If such a powerful solar storm happened today, it would cause blackouts and disrupt telecommunications on a large scale due to the intensity of the radiation.

In this year’s storm, some satellites, including Elon Musk’s Starlink, suffered impacts.

“Major geomagnetic solar storm happening right now. Biggest in a long time. Starlink satellites are under a lot of pressure, but holding up so far,” Musk posted. On Saturday (May 11), the company warned of “degraded service” caused by the storm.

Of the more than 7,500 satellites orbiting Earth, around 60 percent are operated by Starlink, an arm of Musk’s SpaceX.

Ahead of the storm, the NOAA warned operators of power plants, spacecraft in orbit, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take precautions but added that regular people need not take action.

Rob Steenburgh, a scientist with NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said that for “most people” on the planet, “they won’t have to do anything.”

As the storm came and went, Earth’s infrastructure survived with little to no damage. Meanwhile, the event did provide some stunning images.