Third time could prove lucky for aurora viewers around the world

Northern lights or aurora borealis illuminate the night sky along a highway north of San Francisco in Middletown, California on May 11, 2024. The most powerful solar storm in more than two decades struck Earth, triggering spectacular celestial light shows from Tasmania to Britain — and threatening possible disruptions to satellites and power grids as it persists into the weekend. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP)

By Issam AHMED with AFP bureaus around the world

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2024 (AFP) – Anyone who missed the dazzling auroras dancing across night skies earlier this weekend will get another chance Sunday evening, as the powerful geomagnetic storm hitting the Earth is expected to intensify yet again.

“Several intense Coronal Mass Ejections are still anticipated to reach the Earth’s outer atmosphere by later today,” the US National Weather Service said.

Those ejections — expulsions of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun, known as CMEs — have since Friday produced spectacular celestial shows across swaths of the Earth, far from the extreme latitudes where the auroras are normally seen.

But while many viewers have been disappointed — at times because of overcast skies — the latest prediction suggests their third time might just prove lucky.

The latest CMEs are expected to reach Earth late Sunday or early Monday, “causing severe or extreme geomagnetic storms once again and (offering) a very good chance to see magnificent aurorae much further south than normal,” said Keith Ryden, who heads the Surrey Space Centre in England.

Or as one self-described “lighthunter” suggested on social media platform X, “Keep those pants on, coffee thermoses filled to the brim and fingers crossed!”

But scientists said the intensity of anything seen Sunday night might not reach the level of Friday’s show.

“This is likely the last of the Earth-directed CMEs from this particular monster sunspot,” Mathew Owens, a professor of space physics at the University of Reading, in England, told AFP.

Still, overall, he added, “the intensity of it has taken all of us by surprise.”

A geomagnetic storm warning remains in effect until 2:00 am (0600 GMT) Monday, said the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), with auroras possible as far south as New York, northern Iowa and Washington State.

Friday saw the first “extreme” geomagnetic storm since the “Halloween Storms” of October 2003 that caused blackouts in Sweden and damaged power infrastructure in South Africa.

Excitement over the phenomenon — and otherworldly photos of pink, green and purple night skies — popped up across the world, from Mont Saint-Michel on the French coast to Australia’s island state of Tasmania.

Late Saturday evening, pictures again trickled onto social media as people in the United States reported sightings, though not as strong as Friday night’s.

This handout courtesy of the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, taken May 10, 2024, shows the aurora borealis lighting up the night sky as a wildfire burns near Fort Nelson, in British Columbia, Canada. Evacuations for the Northern Rocky Mountain Regional Municipality and Fort Nelson First Nations were issued on May 10, 2024 night after the fire grew from an initial reported size of half a square kilometer. (Photo by Handout / Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship / AFP)
Northern lights or aurora borealis illuminate the night sky in the Novosibirsk region early on May 12, 2024. (Photo by Vladimir NIKOLAYEV / AFP)

– ‘You’d be amazed’ –

When charged particles from solar winds are captured by Earth’s magnetic field, they accelerate towards the planet’s magnetic poles, which is why auroras are normally seen there. But during periods of heightened solar activity, the effects extend farther toward the equator.

No major disruptions to power or communications networks appear to have been reported this time around.

But China’s National Center for Space Weather issued a “red alert” Saturday, warning that communications and navigation could be affected in much of the country, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Unlike solar flares, which travel at the speed of light and reach Earth in around eight minutes, CMEs travel at a more sedate pace, with officials putting the current average at 800 kilometers (500 miles) per second.

People with eclipse glasses can look for the sunspot cluster during the day.

NOAA’s Brent Gordon encouraged the public to try to capture the night sky with phone cameras even if they couldn’t see auroras with their naked eyes.

“You’d be amazed at what you see in that picture,” he said.

WENDOVER, UTAH – MAY 10: A geomagnetic storm lights up the night sky above the Bonneville Salt Flats on May 10, 2024 in Wendover, Utah. Places as far south as Alabama and parts of Northern California were expected to see the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights from a powerful geomagnetic storm that reached Earth. Blake Benard/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Blake Benard / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

– Confused pigeons –

Fluctuating magnetic fields associated with geomagnetic storms induce currents in long wires, including power lines, which can lead to blackouts. Long pipelines can also become electrified.

Spacecraft are at risk from high doses of radiation, although the atmosphere prevents this from reaching Earth.

NASA can ask astronauts on the International Space Station to move to better-shielded places within the outpost.

Even pigeons and other species that have internal biological compasses can be affected.