Aurora Sky Show Hit and Miss

Photo of a river and the Aurora Borealis in Norway.
Aurora borealis in Norway. Photograph by Arild Heitmann, National Geographic Your Shot

Hopes were high on Thursday night for skies painted with northern lights. But it was more of a hit or miss sky event, depending on where folks looked.

Sky-watchers in the continental U.S., where these sky shows are seldom seen, were hoping to get a glimpse of the aurora borealis this week after the sun unleashed a massive cloud of charged particles toward Earth on January 7.

When such outbursts slam into our planet’s protective magnetic field, their particles funnel down into the atmosphere above the polar regions, where they spark northern lights. This week’s strong solar storm was expected to trigger a sky show that stretched farther south than usual, appearing in skies over big parts of North America and Europe.

However, according to the latest from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the storm’s impact was weaker than expected, and it failed to produce the widespread geomagnetic fireworks that many were anticipating.  And sky-watchers’ frustration was evident on social media.

 

 

Others tried to stay hopeful…

@DaciaTryonDP chimed in, “Went Aurora hunting last night and saw… nothing. #AuroraBorealis you haven’t seen the end of me, we will meet someday.”

@DesignDiva_6h took a more philosophical approach, “Ah well, the randomness of it makes it so exciting! If it was predictable there would be no mystery 🙂 #aurora

The timing of the storm, however, appears to have definitely favored Northern Europe. As a result the brightest, most stunning auroras were witnessed around the Arctic Circle and in places like Ireland,  Norway, Alaska, and the Northwest Territories in Canada.

 

 

 

“It was dark in Norway when the CME [coronal mass ejection] arrived, so observers there witnessed a nice display. By the time night fell over North America, however, the lights had faded. U.S. observers saw nothing remarkable,” according to online statements on spaceweather.com.

What went wrong with the prediction?

While it initially appeared that a large auroral display would grace our skies, further analysis of space weather data showed that Mother Nature had her own plans. A blast of solar wind from a coronal hole might have actually shoved the Earth-directed solar storm off course, resulting in our planet receiving only a glancing blow, instead of a full blast of space weather.

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Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.