Look: First 'extreme' solar storm in 20 years brings spectacular auroras

Authorities notified satellite operators, airlines and the power grid to take precautionary steps for potential disruptions caused by changes to Earth's magnetic field

By AFP

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Northern lights or aurora borealis during a solar storm over the National Monument of Scotland in Edinburgh on May 10 — Photos: AFP
Northern lights or aurora borealis during a solar storm over the National Monument of Scotland in Edinburgh on May 10 — Photos: AFP

Published: Sat 11 May 2024, 10:29 AM

Last updated: Sat 11 May 2024, 10:31 AM

The most powerful solar storm in more than two decades struck Earth on Friday, triggering spectacular celestial light shows in skies from Tasmania to Britain — and threatening possible disruptions to satellites and power grids as it persists into the weekend.

The first of several coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — expulsions of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun — came just after 1600 GMT (8pm, UAE time), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Space Weather Prediction Centre.


It was later upgraded to an "extreme" geomagnetic storm — the first since the so-called "Halloween Storms" of October 2003 caused blackouts in Sweden and damaged power infrastructure in South Africa. More CMEs are expected to pummel the planet in the coming days.

Social media lit up with people posting pictures of auroras from northern Europe and Australasia.


Here are some snaps:

Ontario, Canada
Ontario, Canada
Ohio, US
Ohio, US
Margate, Kent, South East Britain
Margate, Kent, South East Britain
London
London

"We've just woken the kids to go watch the Northern Lights in the back garden! Clearly visible with the naked eye," Iain Mansfield, a think tanker in Hertford, Britain, told AFP.

"Absolutely biblical skies in Tasmania at 4am this morning. I'm leaving today and knew I could not pass up this opportunity," photographer Sean O' Riordan posted on X alongside a photo.

Authorities notified satellite operators, airlines and the power grid to take precautionary steps for potential disruptions caused by changes to Earth's magnetic field.

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.

They emanated from a massive sunspot cluster that is 17 times wider than our planet. The Sun is approaching the peak of an 11-year cycle that brings heightened activity.

Where are they visible?

Mathew Owens, a professor of space physics at the University of Reading, told AFP that while the effects would be largely felt over the planet's northern and southern latitudes, how far they would extend would depend on the storm's final strength.

"'Go outside tonight and look' would be my advice because if you see the aurora, it's quite a spectacular thing," he added. If people have eclipse glasses, they can also look for the sunspot cluster during the day.

In the US, this could include places such as Northern California and Alabama, officials said.

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

"Just go out your back door and take a picture with the newer cell phones and you'd be amazed at what you see in that picture versus what you see with your eyes."

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