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Unexpectedly Strong Solar Storm Causes Northern Lights to be Visible Farther South than Usual



A Rare Sight

If you stayed up late Thursday night and were in just the right part of Northern California, you may have caught a glimpse of a pretty spectacular phenomenon. An unusually strong solar storm led to a brilliant display of the aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.

Visibility in California and Arizona

A Pacific Gas & Electric Co. camera located near Mount Shasta caught faint wisps of activity to the north. The colors were incredibly vibrant over Washington state, too. Some even posted on social media saying they could see the tops of the aurora as far south as Phoenix, Arizona. With a nickname like “Northern Lights”, you’d be right to assume that it is pretty unusual to be able to see the aurora this far south.

An Explanation for this Natural Light Show

Auroras happen when particles from the sun are snared by the Earth’s magnetic field and funneled toward the North Pole and the South Pole. In general, the more particles the sun sends into space, the more likely you are to see an aurora at lower latitudes. Those particles can be ejected in large numbers by solar storms. According to Alex Young, who is the director of science for heliophysics at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Space Flight Center, the solar storm that triggered Thursday night’s aurora display was unexpectedly strong.

The Solar Storm Rating

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center uses a rating system to forecast and track the strength of different geomagnetic solar storms. The scale ranges from G1 to G5, with G1 being the weakest. The scale is based on powers of 10, meaning a G2 storm is 10 times stronger than a G1 storm and so on. Young said the most recent one was a G4, explaining that solar storms of this magnitude occur, on average, 50 to 100 times every 11 years, the length of one solar cycle.

What the Future Holds

The current solar cycle likely reached its low point in 2020. That means for the next several years, solar activity and the potential for more potent geomagnetic storms will increase. “It’s exciting. There’s a lot more to come, and it’s going to be a great show over the next couple of years,” Young said. Parts of that show may be visible in Northern California, given the right timing, trajectory of solar particles and weather conditions.




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