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When can you see the Northern Lights again? Here's how to check.

Posted at 10:30 AM, May 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-13 10:30:22-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Millions of people around the United States and the world were memorized over the weekend when the Northern Lights put on a show over parts of the country (and world) not used to seeing such a display. Those who missed seeing the lights or want to see it again were left asking the question — when can we see the Northern Lights again?

One place to find answers is the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center. But as you may have noticed, there are a lot of factors (local weather and cloud cover being the most obvious).

On Saturday, the powerful solar storm put on an amazing skyward light show across the globe overnight but caused only minor disruptions to the electric power grid, communications, and satellite positioning systems.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said that no FEMA region reported any significant impact from the storms.

The U.S. Department of Energy said Saturday it was 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.”

Brilliant purple, green, yellow, and pink hues of the Northern Lights were reported worldwide, with sightings in Germany, Switzerland, China, England, Spain, and elsewhere.

In the U.S., Friday’s solar storm pushed the lights much farther south than normal.

The Miami office of the National Weather Service confirmed sightings in the areas of Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers, Florida.

Meteorologist Nick Carr said another forecaster who lives near Fort Lauderdale photographed the lights and was familiar with them because he previously lived in Alaska.

People in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and other Midwestern states were able to capture photos of bright colors along the horizon.

Sunday night may provide another chance for many to see the spectacle.

NOAA issued a rare severe geomagnetic storm warning when a solar outburst reached Earth on Friday afternoon, hours sooner than anticipated.

The agency alerted operators of power plants and orbiting spacecraft, as well as FEMA, to take precautions.

“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 said. He and his colleagues said the best views may come from phone cameras, which are better at capturing light than the naked eye.

Snap a picture of the sky, and “there might be actually a nice little treat there for you,” said Mike Bettwy, operations chief for the prediction center.

The most intense solar storm in recorded history, in 1859, prompted auroras in Central America and possibly even Hawaii.

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.

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A person takes a photo of the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, May. 11, 2024.

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.

The sun has produced strong solar flares since Wednesday, resulting in at least seven outbursts of plasma. Each eruption, known as a coronal mass ejection, can contain billions of tons of plasma and magnetic field from the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona.

The flares seem to be associated with a sunspot that is 16 times the diameter of Earth, NOAA said. It is all part of the solar activity ramping up as the sun approaches the peak of its 11-year cycle.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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