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How a recent geomagnetic storm affected the aurora borealis

The lights were strongest in Europe and Asia but could be seen in Ukraine and states across the United States

SHARE How a recent geomagnetic storm affected the aurora borealis

A woman watches northern lights (aurora borealis) over the village of Podolye, Russia, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of St. Petersburg, on Sunday, April 23, 2023.

Dmitri Lovetsky, Associated Press

On Sunday, a strong geomagnetic storm caused the northern lights to display their colors as far south as Virginia.

An X user shared a time-lapse video of the Sunday night sky in Lebanon, Virginia.

The lights were strongest in Europe and Asia, but they could also be seen in Ukraine, as shown in posts on X, the site formerly called Twitter.

What happens during a geomagnetic storm?

Ryan French, a British solar astrophysicist at the National Solar Observatory, said on X that an event called a filament eruption started a chain reaction that led to Sunday’s bright and widespread display of lights.

A filament is a cooler region on the sun’s surface, per the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service. When an eruption happens, it hurtles clouds of plasma and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, into the solar system.

If these tangled balls of plasma hit the earth, it creates a geomagnetic storm that congregates about the north and south poles of the planet, according to Space.com.

Sunday’s geomagnetic storm was forecast by the Space Weather Prediction Center in advance as a “moderate” storm registering a level 2 on a scale from 1 to 5, reported The Washington Post. The storm ended up stronger than expected and reached a level 3, making it a “strong” storm.

Do geomagnetic storms cause aurora borealis?

Since geomagnetic storms hit earth’s upper atmosphere with charged particles, they can also amplify the usual aurora borealis (northern lights) and aurora australis (southern lights), per the National Weather Service.

Do geomagnetic storms affect people?

Most of the time, flares and CMEs don’t make it to the earth’s surface and don’t affect people’s health directly, per NASA. If stronger CMEs or geomagnetic storms do occur, it’s more likely that particles can break through the atmosphere but the storms still don’t greatly increase the Earth’s normal radiation levels.

Do geomagnetic storms affect phones?

Large geomagnetic storms have the most potential to affect technology, power grids and other electric power transmission, per the National Weather Service. If a large enough storm, such as one that occurred in September 1859 called the Carrington Event, happens, then there would be “significant impacts on our technology,” according to NWS.

Phones and commercial communications, radios, and weather forecast equipment can be affected and damaged by geomagnetic storms, per NWS. Blackouts can also be a result.

Aurora borealis sightings in the United States

Across the United States in places like Wyoming, North Carolina and Oklahoma, sightings of the aurora borealis were posted on X.