NATIONAL NEWS

There’s another chance to view the northern lights show Sunday night – but not for everyone

May 12, 2024, 2:03 PM | Updated: 2:04 pm

Marshall Falcon, left, photographs the northern lights as he and Angie Avitia watch the celestial d...

Marshall Falcon, left, photographs the northern lights as he and Angie Avitia watch the celestial display from Perkins Peninsula Park, west of Eugene, Oregon, on Friday, May 10. (Chris Pietsch, The Register Guard/USA Today Network)

(Chris Pietsch, The Register Guard/USA Today Network)

(CNN)In case you missed the stunning nighttime spectacle of multicolored auroras dancing in the skies across the Northern Hemisphere, there is still a chance Sunday evening to catch a glimpse – but not for everyone.

The auroras that have been visible starting Friday are a result of increased solar activity, including a series of solar flares and coronal mass projections from the sun, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The dazzling curtains of green, red and purple lights were spotted from Maine to California and as far south as Alabama, Georgia and Florida on Friday and Saturday. However, people hoping for another sighting in the South and portions of the central United States may be out of luck.

“No more vibrant aurora for Florida or any other ‘unusual’ places,” said CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar.

“Today is when we see the big shift back to the north for the lights,” Chinchar said. “So all the usual places you would see the aurora, like Iceland, Canada, Scandinavian countries, etc. …. that’s where the focus will be going forward.”

In general, it’s good to start looking during the time right after sunset. Weather, of course, is key, as cloud cover may limit the visibility of the aurora.

Mostly clear conditions are expected in the northern portion of the US including Minneapolis and Fargo, North Dakota – some of the locations with the greatest chance of seeing the auroras on Sunday evening, according to Chinchar.

But thicker cloud cover may inhibit viewing opportunities in a few spots in the Pacific Northwest and around the Great Lakes region.

Green Bay, Wisconsin, is included in the area with the best viewing opportunities but those may be hampered by a chance of clouds and rain Sunday night, Chinchar said.

New York City; Seattle, Washington; and Chicago are among locations where the auroras will possibly be visible on Sunday.

The Space Weather Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service, observed conditions of an extreme geomagnetic storm at 6:54 p.m. ET on Friday evening, reaching a level 5 out of 5 severity. The last time a solar storm of this magnitude reached Earth was in October 2003, resulting in power outages in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa, according to the center.

Signs of a severe geomagnetic storm, or level 4, were first observed by scientists at the center at 12:37 p.m. ET, when a major disturbance was detected in Earth’s magnetic field. Previously, the center issued a geomagnetic storm watch on Thursday evening, the first such watch issued since January 2005.

But the forecast was upgraded after scientists observed G5, or extreme geomagnetic storm, conditions Friday evening.

As the sun nears the peak of activity in its 11-year cycle, known as solar maximum, later this year, researchers have observed increasingly intense solar flares erupting from the fiery orb.

Increased solar activity causes auroras that dance around Earth’s poles, known as the northern lights, or aurora borealis, and southern lights, or aurora australis. When the energized particles from coronal mass ejections reach Earth’s magnetic field, they interact with gases in the atmosphere to create different colored light in the sky.

The extreme geomagnetic storm will continue and persist through at least Sunday, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center.

“The aurora will be more widespread and seen at lower latitudes” during periods of stronger geomagnetic storm conditions, the center said Sunday.

“We are less certain about how much of an Earth-directed impact we will have with the next pending (coronal mass ejection’s) arrival as compared to our high level of certainty with the previous (coronal mass ejections) and extreme geomagnetic storms,” said Shawn Dahl, a service coordinator with the Space Weather Prediction Center, on Sunday.

“Therefore, people wanting to see the aurora should keep checking our webpage and social media presence for news/updates of a new CME arrival,” Dahl said in a statement to CNN.

“The solar wind environment remains highly disturbed as passing CME influences continue, but gradually weaken,” Dahl said. “Still, it will not take much of any new CME arrival for geomagnetic storm levels to reach G3-G4 levels tonight.”

The storm could affect the power grid as well as satellite and high-frequency radio communications. The Biden administration said it is monitoring the possibility of impacts.

Bill Nye the Science Guy, an educator and engineer, said the massive solar storm could cause problems in a world that relies so much on electricity.

Nye noted that a solar storm in 1859, known as the Carrington Event, lasted a week and severely affected telegraph communications, which at the time were state of the art.

“The other thing, everybody, that is a real danger to our technological society, different from 1859, is how much we depend on electricity and our electronics and so on,” Nye said. “None of us really in the developed world could go very long without electricity.”

There are systems in place to minimize the impact but “stuff might go wrong,” said Nye, noting not all transformers are equipped to withstand a massive solar event.

“For me, it’s just like the April 8th total solar eclipse. It really brings the fact that we live on a planet that’s orbiting a star that’s in a galaxy to our front door. It brings it down to earth,” Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, an astrophysicist, told CNN.

“If you ask me, I’d say a total solar eclipse is clearly number one. But next to a bright comet, aurorae are pretty amazing to see. And if you’re near the northern extremes or the southern extremes, we cannot just get the colors in the sky, but the actual undulating curtains of nebulosity. That’s pretty awesome. So the fact that that’s going to extend to more people around the world, that’s pretty cool.”

Nye added, “Let’s celebrate this.”


This story has been updated with additional information.

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There’s another chance to view the northern lights show Sunday night – but not for everyone