Will the northern lights be visible again this week? It’s less likely

May 13, 2024, 4:08 PM | Updated: May 14, 2024, 7:40 pm

For those who were willing to stay awake or wake up, the northern lights captivated Western Washington and many parts of the U.S. and the world Friday night and early Saturday as a breathtaking colorful light show took over the skies.

Will the show continue this week?

Forecasters have suggested mixed news for those who are interested: Those in Washington may get a chance to see them Monday night, but it looks less likely going forward.

Examining Monday first, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration‘s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Sunday night that, “During periods of geomagnetic storm conditions, aurora will potentially be viewable at the middle (and higher) latitudes.”

The best visibility happens away from light pollution and on clear nights. To see how polluted your area is, visit ClearDarkSky’s light pollution map.

Looking ahead to Tuesday, the prediction center stated the aurora could be visible from some spots between New York and Idaho, and not Washington.

In its coverage, however, USA Today added a word caution that forecasting space weather is difficult as researchers have to rely on observations of the sun, which is 93 million miles away from Earth to make their predictions.

What has caused the northern lights phenomenon?

The phenomenon comes after NOAA issued a rare severe geomagnetic storm warning when a solar outburst reached Earth on Friday. Geomagnetic storms, which can trigger the picturesque light displays we have been privy to, range from G1, which NOAA considers “minor” to G5, which are “extreme.”

NOAA explained Saturday that G3 (strong) and G4 (severe) conditions persisted through much of Saturday and a G4 watch is on for Sunday as well. The agency previously stated it hadn’t seen a solar storm like this since 2005. The strength of the storms has decreased significantly since last week, causing the likelihood to see the northern lights to fall significantly.

The spectacular event occurred because of a series of strong coronal mass ejections from the sun. Notably, NOAA stated on X, the source of the storm is a large complex sunspot cluster that is 17 times the diameter of Earth, or the size of 17 Earths.

As to why admirers looking up in the sky see different colors, the prediction center explained that it is defined by the altitude of the aurora. It linked to a PDF explaining more about the colors that can be seen here.

Do these geomagnetic storms impact people on Earth?

NOAA states on its website that G5 storms can cause “widespread voltage control problems and protective system problems can occur. ” In addition, “some grid systems may experience complete collapse or blackouts. Transformers may experience damage.”

The federal agency also said there were preliminary reports of power grid irregularities, degradation of high-frequency communications and global positioning systems.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said that no region had reported any significant impact from the storms. The U.S. Department of Energy said Saturday it is not aware of any impact from the storms on electric customers.

not aware of any impact from the storms on electric customers.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service said on its website Saturday that service had been degraded and its team was investigating. CEO Elon Musk wrote on the social platform X overnight that its satellites were “under a lot of pressure, but holding up so far.”

But it shouldn’t affect the people who live on Earth.

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

“That’s really the gift from space weather: the aurora,” Steenburgh added. He and his colleagues said the best views may come from phone cameras, which are better at capturing light than the naked eye.

This storm posed a risk for high-voltage transmission lines for power grids, not the electrical lines ordinarily found in people’s homes, NOAA space weather forecaster Shawn Dahl told reporters. Satellites also could be affected, which in turn could disrupt navigation and communication services here on Earth.

An extreme geomagnetic storm in 2003, for example, took out power in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa.

Even when the storm is over, signals between GPS satellites and ground receivers could be scrambled or lost, according to NOAA. But there are so many navigation satellites that any outages should not last long, Steenburgh noted.

Send us your photos

If you capture some spring pictures or do get to see the northern lights, please share your photos with MyNorthwest on our Share With Us page.

Contributing: The Associated Press; Julia Dallas

Editors’ note: This story originally was published on Saturday, May 11, 2024. It has been updated and republished multiple times since then.

Steve Coogan is the lead editor of MyNorthwest. You can read more of his stories here. Follow Steve on X, formerly known as Twitter, here and email him here.

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