A powerful solar storm struck Earth’s magnetic field on Thursday, December 1st, sparking a geomagnetic storm that produced stunning aurora borealis light shows across the northern United States overnight. The dazzling green, pink and purple lights dancing across the night sky offered a breathtaking spectacle for skywatchers lucky enough to catch clear skies.
Solar Flare Sets Off Geomagnetic Unrest
The celestial fireworks display traces back to Tuesday, November 29th when the Sun unleashed a strong solar flare followed by a huge plasma eruption known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). Traveling at millions of miles per hour, the CME cloud of charged particles reached Earth on Thursday at approximately 5:54 pm EST.
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center had forecast a G2 geomagnetic storm, the second strongest category, as the CME disturbance shook up Earth’s magnetic field. When storms of this magnitude occur, auroras can dip from their usual polar homes towards mid-latitudes.
Northern Lights Push Far South
And push south they did – much to the delight of amateur skywatchers eagerly awaiting the night’s cosmic performance. While best viewed under dark rural skies, the vivid green shimmer and rapid movement of the aurora borealis made rare appearances across cities like Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Portland. There were even sightings as far south as Pennsylvania and Iowa, though less frequent and vibrant than their northerly counterparts.
“We tend to see the Northern Lights when two things happen: when it’s dark and when there is solar activity like flares and mass ejections,” said Physicist Elizabeth Frost of the University of Michigan.
Ideal Viewing Conditions Lead to Vivid Displays
From the upper Midwest through New England and into eastern Canada, perfect weather conditions aligned to serve up an unencumbered viewing experience across many areas. Clear night skies offered front row seats to blazing bands of emerald light sweeping across the horizon.
Photographers and professional observers captured brilliant timelapse videos showcasing the dancing green lights. Lines and streaks of purple also made an appearance in areas lucky enough to experience sustained activity.
“This was the most vivid and extensive display I’ve seen in years,” remarked Tom DeRito, lead forecaster at Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire. “The lights danced from horizon to horizon in hues of emerald and violet for well over an hour.”
What Causes the Aurora Borealis
The northern lights occur when solar eruptions hurl clouds of electrically charged particles towards Earth at high speeds. As these charged particles collide with gases in our upper atmosphere, energy gets transferred into the gases, causing them to glow.
Oxygen gives off the most common greenish-yellow auroras. But charged particles can also excite nitrogen to generate rarer red and violet hues. The strength of incoming solar storms combined with Earth’s shifting magnetic field guides when, where and how vibrant the lights will appear.
|Electrically charged solar particles collide with oxygen
|Electrically charged solar particles collide with nitrogen
|Red, violet, pink
Social Media Lights Up with Stunning Images
As dazzling auroras painted the night sky, eyewitnesses filled social media feeds with photos and awestruck commentary. Spectators lucky enough to glimpse the rare light show from cities and metro areas felt especially surprised by the cosmic display outside their back doors.
“I cannot believe I just saw the #NorthernLights from my back porch in Wilmington, North Carolina!” shared @Linda4423. “This is a once in a lifetime experience – I’m still in awe!”
The vibrant events even took observers by surprise in light-polluted urban regions.
“Standing on my Brooklyn rooftop right now watching the northern lights is not something I expected, ever,” posted Andre McGinty alongside a brief video clip. “But here we are – utterly speechless!”
Ongoing Solar Storm Keeping Things Active
This celestial drama may not be over yet. NOAA predictions show geomagnetic unrest continuing into the weekend as Thursday’s CME cloud continues billowing past Earth. While activity levels may fluctuate, the ongoing solar storm makes viewing more possible across North America again overnight Friday and into early Saturday morning.
Cloud-free skies provide the key ingredient for successful sightings. For best viewing opportunities, find an observing spot with an unobstructed view facing north or northwest. Areas farthest from city lights will showcase the auroras at peak vibrancy when they do emerge.
Keep eyes glued to the night sky into the weekend as this dazzling solar storm continues bringing rare cosmic beauty down to Earth. The northern lights serve up an unforgettable experience for those fortunate enough to catch the spellbinding celestial dance in action.