Northern Lights Take Unusual Trip Down South

By: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press
By: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press

Washington, D.C. (AP) - A baffling solar storm pulled colorful
northern lights unusually far south, surprising space weather
experts and treating skywatchers to a rare and spectacular treat.

A storm-chasing photographer captured the strange sky show in
Arkansas Monday night. People in Kentucky and Georgia reported
their sightings to local television stations. A special automated
NASA camera that takes a picture of the sky every minute in
Huntsville, Ala., captured 20 minutes of the vibrant red and green
aurora borealis.

In Arkansas, Brian Emfinger called the view "extremely vivid,
the most vivid I have ever seen. There was just 15 to 20 minutes
where it really went crazy."

Emfinger, a storm chaser, captured the vibrant nighttime images
on camera in Ozark, Ark.

He called it "a much bigger deal" than a tornado" because he
sees dozens of those every year. This is only the second northern
lights in a decade that he has seen this far south.

"They are very rare events," said NASA scientist Bill Cooke,
who found the aurora photos in the Alabama camera's archive and
posted them on the Marshall Space Flight Center's blog. "We don't
see them this far south that often."

Officials at the federal Space Weather Prediction Center in
Boulder, Colo., said they were surprised at the southern reach. The
center monitors solar storms, which trigger auroras.

Space weather forecast chief Bob Rutledge said given the size of
the solar storm, the lights probably shouldn't have been visible
south of Iowa. The storm was only considered "moderate" sized, he
said.

He called the storm unusual, its effects reaching Earth eight
hours faster than forecast. But that timing made it just about
perfect for U.S. viewing, he said.

"The peak of the intensity happened when it was dark or
becoming dark over the U.S., coupled with the clear skies. We did
have significant aurora sightings," Rutledge said. "The timing
was good on this."

In Huntsville, the aurora lasted from 8:25 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.
CDT, Cooke said. In Arkansas, Emfinger went out shortly after
sunset after getting a space weather alert. He saw auroras that
lasted until after 11 p.m.

An aurora begins with a storm shooting a magnetic solar wind
from the sun. The wind slams into Earth's magnetic field,
compressing it. That excites electrons of oxygen and nitrogen. When
those excited electrons calm down, they emit red and green colors,
Rutledge said.

Often solar storms can cause damage satellites and power grids.
This one didn't, Rutledge said.

------
Online:
NASA's automated camera capturing the aurora:
http://bit.ly/t3n81N
Brian Emfinger's page: http://www.realclearwx.com/
The Space Weather Prediction Center: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/


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