Skywatchers in Europe, Asia and North America were treated Sunday night to perhaps one of the most widespread displays of the northern lights since the autumn solar storms of 2003. Equally impressive shows of the aurora australis, or southern lights, were spotted in Australia and New Zealand.
Forecasters at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., issued warnings for a Level 4 out of 5 “severe” geomagnetic storm, which happens on average only 60 times every 11 years. The episode may have been even more intense at times, sparking auroral displays as far south as California, Arizona, Arkansas and Virginia.
“Certainly what you saw last night was the biggest in the last five years,” said Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “We’re going to see a lot more activity like this in the next several years because we’re going to be in the maximum phase of the sunspot cycle.”
NOAA warns that geomagnetic storms of this strength can cause “possible widespread voltage control problems” on power grids and can “mistakenly trip out key assets” on protective systems. Satellites may see increased drag and, in some cases, even require minor corrective adjustments in positioning.
What caused the solar storm?
On Friday afternoon, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite recorded an explosion on the surface of the sun. The flare, rated an M2 on an ascending scale that climbs A, B, C, M to X, caused a radio burst on Earth eight minutes later. That clued NOAA forecasters into the fact that the energy was directed toward Earth.
The flare was followed by a coronal mass ejection (CME) — a mass of solar plasma, charged particles and magnetism — that headed directly toward Earth at speeds of roughly 1.5 million miles per hour. That interplanetary shock wave collided with Earth’s magnetic field on Sunday afternoon Eastern time, which was after dark in Europe and in the early hours of Monday in China. Brilliant apparitions of the northern lights quickly appeared.
Northern lights (aurora) in Kyiv tonight 😱 pic.twitter.com/T9zzMNxPom— Igor Novikov (@igornovikov) April 23, 2023
The CME brought “severe” geomagnetic storming, stronger than what the Space Weather Prediction Center forecast when the CME left the sun Friday.
“The way this storm — this CME — connected was just perfectly connected to Earth’s magnetic field,” said Murtagh, who compared it to two bar magnets clicking with one another. “Consequently, the storming was up at the severe level versus just the moderate, maybe strong, level that we might have expected.”
Forecasting such intense storms is difficult because of a lack of real-time observations, he said. Spacecraft monitor the sun and can observe when a CME occurs. Using that data, Murtagh and his colleagues can determine if it’s headed toward Earth and when it might arrive based on measured speeds.
But once the CME leaves the sun, scientists won’t get data again on its speed, temperature, density or magnetic orientation until it passes a spacecraft about 1 million miles from Earth. At that point, the CME could get to Earth in only 15 to 30 minutes. This dearth of data, Murtagh said, significantly limits the accurate forecasting of storm intensity.
The European Space Agency is working to add another spacecraft between the sun and Earth to monitor such space weather, but it won’t launch until later this decade, Murtagh said.
This storm persisted for about 12 hours, often at severe levels. The CME was almost twice as strong as the one that brought auroras to lower latitudes in March.
Where the northern lights were seen
The first displays appeared in China, where red pillars were seen dancing over the northern horizon. Jeff Dai, who captured a photo of pink and red hues over Karamay in the Xinjiang autonomous territory, described seeing the lights as a “dream come true” in a post to SpaceWeather.com.
“Finally the red northern light appears from the north horizon at 3AM,” he wrote. “It can be see by my naked eye. As the time passes, the aurora become stronger. I notice that it appears over my head. It’s truly spectacular!”
The colors of an aurora correspond to the type and altitude of the element that is excited in Earth’s atmosphere, Murtagh explained. Excited oxygen atoms glow red above 120 miles and glow green between 60 and 120 miles. Excited nitrogen atoms below 120 miles can glow pink or purple. Murtagh said a more intense aurora is typically higher, so lower latitudes will see more red.
“The bigger storms can light up the higher altitudes, which is largely going to [excite] the oxygen causing that red,” he said. “The further you are away, down south that is, you’re going to not see the green and yellow in the lower altitudes.”
The lights then expanded across Europe — shining in Wales, Germany, Poland, France, Hungary, Russia and Ukraine.
The official Stonehenge Twitter account in Britain posted a photo of the lights hovering over the prehistoric site — complete with a shooting star.
The Northern Lights and a Meteor over Stonehenge this morning 😍 Photo credit Stonehenge Dronescapes on FB #Aurora #auroraborealis #northernlights #stonehenge #stars #astro #meteor #beautiful #april #astrophotography pic.twitter.com/RYIirr7X7J— Stonehenge U.K (@ST0NEHENGE) April 24, 2023
South of the equator, the lights glowed in New Zealand and Australia, including in the states of New South Wales and Tasmania.
Once darkness settled over the Lower 48 of the United States, the northern lights ventured across the Mid-Atlantic, Plains and Great Lakes. They hovered over Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine. Clouds predominated over New Hampshire. Ohio stargazers saw them, too. Some of the photos look more impressive than real life because of long camera exposures, but scores of residents reported delicate pastels visible to the naked eye.
The lights were especially vivid in Illinois and Missouri. Over the Northern Plains and Northern Tier, the display rivaled something reminiscent of Fairbanks, Alaska.
In South Dakota, a “corona” formed where the lights shimmered directly overhead.
Unsurprisingly, there were striking auroral displays in Canada.
One of the brightest Aurora I've ever seen. It lit up the land around me. Canmore, Alberta. #Aurora pic.twitter.com/yF9uVsjWiu— Neil Zeller (@Neil_Zee) April 24, 2023
The auroras were visible even in southern Arizona and California. Jim Tang, a storm chaser and photographer, wrote, “Aurora visible to the naked eye,” as he snapped stunning shots near Lake Topaz, on the Nevada border due east of Sacramento.
Similar photos emerged from the Mammoth Lakes region in the Sierra Nevada, at the same latitude as San Francisco. Mammoth Lakes is known for its ski industry, averaging 400 inches of snow per year.
In Arkansas, a faint glow was spotted on the northern horizon.
Aurora and meteors — in the same shot
Several photographers were lucky enough to snag both the lights and a meteor — likely tied to the ongoing Lyrid meteor shower:
Beautiful Lyrid meteor with auroral pillars! About 10:15pm cst. West of St Louis, MO pic.twitter.com/MCDUKaj6B4— Peter Forister ⚡️🌪️⚡️ (@forecaster25) April 24, 2023
We’re dancing! 🕺🏾 #AuroraBorealis #vawx— Billy Bowling (@babowling12) April 24, 2023
36.9 N@TamithaSkov @NWSMorristown @WCYB_DavidBoyd pic.twitter.com/Lc2IF8T9g7
Aurora state by state
Here are some more photos posted to social media, organized by state:
Absolutely incredible aurora tonight in Cantwell, Alaska. Just re-entering service after four mind-blowing hours of purple and blue coronas.#aurora #northernlights pic.twitter.com/g2MIBLRIJN— Vincent Ledvina (@Vincent_Ledvina) April 24, 2023
Aurora now visible in Southern Arizona! About an hour SE of Phoenix. #aurora pic.twitter.com/ykQw8p6Icx— Greg McCown (@Gregtucson) April 24, 2023
That was incredible! #azwx pic.twitter.com/FX19kGQkxX— John Sirlin (@SirlinJohn) April 24, 2023
My pics from tonight from Northwest Arkansas. First pic is drone pic. DSLR pics actually managed to capture some faint purple Aurora above the reds! Also caught a fireball in front of the fading aurora. #aurora #AuroraBorealis #arwx Video will be on my Facebook page -… pic.twitter.com/SBeZHqc99Y— Brian Emfinger (@brianemfinger) April 24, 2023
Never thought I’d see the #NorthernLights in Southern California! 😱🤩 I took this pic on my phone, no filter! In the Owens Peak Wilderness in the Southern Sierra. #AuroraBorealis #aurora pic.twitter.com/HvgXCbLYZs— Alice Hwang (@MsAliceHwang) April 24, 2023
Can’t believe this happened IN CALIFORNIA!!!! What a night 🥲 pic.twitter.com/zmclX54GPv— Carter Murphy 💰8️⃣ (@cartermurphy218) April 24, 2023
Unreal northern lights show for Colorado!! pic.twitter.com/IUBkuasB1R— Matt Coker (@StormCoker) April 24, 2023
Clouds refused to fully clear in New England last night, but it made for an interesting timelapse at Barkhamsted Reservoir for the wild aurora show.#ctwx #AuroraBorealis #Aurora #NorthernLights pic.twitter.com/BtOCH3Byyt— Ethan Moriarty (@EMoriartyWX) April 24, 2023
From just east of Pine Village, IN just about 50 minutes ago. Not too shabby for a handheld iPhone shot. Got some better ones with the Canon 6D. Aurora we’re mostly faint visually but with some occasional brighter pillars. Seems to be calming down now. pic.twitter.com/5HS6OoRYN7— Daniel T. Dawson II (@Meteodan) April 24, 2023
Vibrant shimmering, #aurora coming directly overhead now in Champaign County, Illinois. This is unreal, haven’t seen anything like it since the middle 2000s. #aurora #NorthernLights— Andrew Pritchard (@skydrama) April 24, 2023
iPhone photo: pic.twitter.com/wvezdukDQO
Photos from last night’s #aurora 20 miles north of Cedar Rapids, #Iowa, sometimes so brilliant it was directly over head. #iawx @spann @KopelmanWX @WXSchnack @KWWLStormTrack7 @NWSQuadCities @KyleKielWX @Kaj_OMara @eileenloanWX @NStewCBS2 @WxMarshall @GHeydWX @brandonlaw_wx pic.twitter.com/rfaWjsGIyi— Christopher V. Sherman (@cvsherman) April 24, 2023
A time lapse of last night's #NorthernLights show in eastern Iowa, with some real-time video at the end. Hands down the most incredible #AuroraBorealis show I have ever watched.— Nick Stewart (@NStewCBS2) April 24, 2023
Video taken near Brandon, #Iowa. #IAwx pic.twitter.com/zTbzd9AfTw
Aurora Borealis — as seen from Goodland, KS during the late evening on Sunday April 23, 2023. #KSwx #COwx #NEwx #AuroraBorealis #aurora pic.twitter.com/TkZfhzIBxB— Brandon (@Brandon_RTWX) April 24, 2023
@capitalweather @MatthewCappucci @forecaster25 @TonyPannWBAL @JustinWeather @ECpix @ttasselWBAL— 9msami98 (@9sami98) April 24, 2023
Nothern lights visible from Ellicott city MD.
I may have captured the aurora pillar in the first picture. pic.twitter.com/qrV7TFVBXh
Speechless. April 23rd is my birthday. the best present anyone could ask for! This is #bondfalls. south facing. In #Michigan. Total bucket list image!! 😭😍 @PureMichigan @TamithaSkov @Vincent_Ledvina @NightLights_AM #tweetaurora #spacewx #StormHour pic.twitter.com/BpXsbz8raG— MaryBeth Kiczenski (@MKiczenski) April 24, 2023
Northern lights absolutely out of control in northern MN tonight! These are iPhone shots from our yard pic.twitter.com/YLEbiOeE3l— Christopher Ingraham🦗 (@_cingraham) April 24, 2023
Northern lights over central Missouri at peak storm conditions around 11pm last night.— Peter Forister ⚡️🌪️⚡️ (@forecaster25) April 24, 2023
AMAZING show with bright naked-eye colors and brilliant pulsating greens.
📍 Jonesburg, MO, USA #mowx #aurora #NorthernLights pic.twitter.com/xjlxdbP1mN
Only for the 2nd time in Oklahoma, and the 3rd time in my life, I am watching the #aurora. Amazing!#okwx#AuroraBorealis pic.twitter.com/l8RGAWJNkX— Greg McLaughlin (@GregMc_wx) April 24, 2023
Another photograph from last evenings amazing Aurora Borealis display near Bear Mountain, NY. I've never photographed the Aurora this close to NYC before! #aurora #AuroraBorealis pic.twitter.com/q9ClrZhkfd— Nicholas Isabella (@NycStormChaser) April 24, 2023
One of the most breathtaking displays I’ve ever seen in Rochester. Absolutely stunning! #ROC pic.twitter.com/G5mWmLWJ9e— Eric Snitil (@EricSnitilWx) April 24, 2023
Due to a series of unfortunate events, this is about as good as my aurora photos get. Regardless, it was a great night spent with all the @UNCAweather seniors and a few locals!— Evan Fisher (@EFisherWX) April 24, 2023
Congrats everyone on your captures 🎉 pic.twitter.com/ozTksbLxy0
A few of the 1000's of images I shot last night and early this morning in Griggs County, ND with the incredible aurora display. I thought the old courthouse looked nice surrounded by green. #AuroraBorealis #aurora @JimCantore @StephanieAbrams @JordanSteele #ndwx… pic.twitter.com/dhbZmiOyeV— Charles Peek (@CharlesPeekWX) April 24, 2023
WOW! What an absolutely INCREDIBLE night here in central Pennsylvania. This was my view of the Northern Lights just before 3am at Shikellamy State Park (Overlook Section) in Union County, PA #TonyBendelePhotography @spann @NWSStateCollege @WeatherMatrix @JimCantore @accuweather pic.twitter.com/BXpBV12KbD— Tony Bendele (@TonyBendele) April 24, 2023
Aurora from 34° N near Turkey, Texas last night around 23:50@AuroraNotify @NASASun @TamithaSkov @spacewxwatch pic.twitter.com/4Vbx7jgfo9— Matt Phelps (@themattphelps) April 24, 2023
AURORA BOREALIS IN UTAH: This has been one of the stronger geomagnetic storms in Utah. It's not unheard of to get the Northern Lights this far south, but to this magnitude is rare. STUNNING! #utwx 🤩— Matthew Johnson (@KSL_Matt) April 24, 2023
📍: North Ogden, UT
📸: Kenna Jensen
📍: Park City, UT
📸: Kimberly Henneman pic.twitter.com/tWCWR0DIAe
Holy Smokes! @SundanceResort pic.twitter.com/JZzO8VsHZZ— Utah Daily Snow (@WasatchSnow) April 24, 2023
@WTOP @capitalweather @laurynricketts— Sam Norton Photography (@SamuelINorton) April 24, 2023
Tonight's insane #aurora over #shenandoahnationalpark. #AuroraBorealis #NorthernLights pic.twitter.com/XkYeYcjOD7
Quick edit of some of the pillars we saw tonight at Shenandoah NP. #NorthernLights #aurora @capitalweather pic.twitter.com/4mW0dSKvRt— Manuel Salgado (@msalgado) April 24, 2023
Last night's Aurora Borealis at Shenandoah National Park's Buck Hollow Overlook (Virginia). Very cool to see!#Aurora #AuroraBorealis #northernlights #Shenandoah #ShenandoahNationalPark #SNP #findyourpark @capitalweather #cwgphoto @spann #ThePhotoHour #StormHour #NikonNoFilter pic.twitter.com/VOvXDdQbyB— Dave Lyons (@insiteimage) April 24, 2023
One more from Waterford, Virginia… I cannot wait to go through my camera in the morning. Captured some red and lots of pillars. Looking north towards the glow of Frederick, MD. #aurora #spaceweather #vawx #northernlights @capitalweather @JimCantore pic.twitter.com/pgXw2dTmWs— Joe (@joebarti) April 24, 2023
The most amazing experience of my life standing behind a camera. Naked eye pillars from far Southwest Va @ 11:23p— Billy Bowling (@babowling12) April 24, 2023
📍Lebanon, VA (36.9N)#vawx #aurora #NorthernLights pic.twitter.com/5LpRojVqbD
Aurora from my backyard in Madison, WI around 11:20 pm CDT 4/23/2023. Taken with a long exposure app on my iPhone. Held it steady on the deck rail, looking straight up pic.twitter.com/cp5pD7eOJN— Pete Pokrandt @PTH1@mas.to (@PTH1) April 24, 2023
And a few more pictures of the #NorthernLights from our office. #AuroraBorealis #Aurora #wywx pic.twitter.com/S4qREUo4ZL— NWS Riverton (@NWSRiverton) April 24, 2023