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Smoke Signals

Northern Lights In California

A rare and beautiful phenomenon right in the backyards of millions
Courtesy of LA Times

This weekend, May 10th 2024, an “unusual and potentially historic event” (Clinton Wallace, Director, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center) occurred in California. Late on Friday night, the beautiful northern lights were visible across the U.S. Though it was not able to be seen by us in Orange County due to cloud coverage, for the first time in years the northern lights reached as far down as LA County. This is all thanks to an unusually long solar storm occurring — the largest to hit America since 2005. 

What is a solar storm? A solar storm happens when energy from solar wind is transferred into the electromagnetic field around Earth. This causes the familiar dazzling effect of the aurora borealis which captivates scientists and skywatchers alike, but it can usually only be seen in polar regions. At least seven coronal mass ejections from the sun were observed by forecasters, putting this storm in the G5 (highest) classification. This can be considered dangerous, due to the way the solar wind can disrupt communications. However it is also what made this weekend’s display so unique and far reaching. The last G5 solar storm in history occurred in 2003, and caused power problems in Sweden and South Africa. This solar flare has only caused minor disruptions in the electric power grid.

Thanks to all of this, people all across the country saw green, pink, and purple hues dance through the sky, with many capturing photos or videos and posting them on social media, relishing in the dreamy night. Many didn’t expect to ever experience the phenomenon and it will surely be memorable for years to come.

But was this a once-in-a-lifetime experience? People have traveled thousands of miles to witness the aurora borealis, and for so many to see it from their own backyard is incredible. Reports are saying that the auroras will return on Sunday night, so for those who are sad that they slept through it, or just want to experience the beauty again, there may be another chance.

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