Northern Lights make encore appearance over Puget Sound
The Northern Lights made another appearance across Western Washington Thursday night, fresh off the heels of a dazzling show on Tuesday night
Thursday night's show was courtesy of an intense solar storm that didn't quite live up to its advanced billing at first, but a surge in the storm's wake sparked a strong display of auroras across the northern third of the continent.
While clouds thwarted part of the region from seeing the display, we had reports from Covington, Shelton, Everett, Spanaway, Monroe and Kent's East Hill.
Liem Bahneman grabbed his camera and headed south out of Seattle as the aurora forecast improved and captured the photo above from near Flaming Geyser State Park in Covington around 12:45 a.m. Friday.
"The green glow was pretty constant but low from about 11pm-1:10am but flared for maybe 3 minutes at 12:45 a.m. with rays that extended well above 45 degrees," Bahneman said. "And the whole aurora increased in brightness dramatically, with spikes and curtains visible, but as fast as it flared, it died back down."
He says the aurora was barely naked eye visible for a majority of the time due to the moonlight and opacity of the air
"Not a bad show for a day after the main impact and the weather was surprisingly good. The full moon was a bit harsh, though."
Greg Johnson's webcam at skunkbayweather.com captured some of the green glow between the clouds that persisted around Hansville. If only it had been a clearer night!
Most potent solar storm since 2004
At its peak, the solar storm was the most potent since 2004, space weather forecasters said. No power outages or other technological disturbances were reported from the solar storm that started to peter out late Friday morning.
Solar storms, which can't hurt people, can disturb electric grids, GPS systems, and satellites. They can also spread colorful Northern Lights further south than usual, as the latest storm did early Friday.
And more storms are coming. The federal government's Space Weather Prediction Center says the same area of the sun erupted again Thursday night, with a milder storm expected to reach Earth early Sunday.
The latest storm started with a flare on Tuesday, and had been forecast to be strong and direct, with one scientist predicting it would blast Earth directly like a punch in the nose. But it arrived Thursday morning at mild levels - at the bottom of the government's 1-5 scale of severity. It strengthened to a level 3 for several hours early Friday as the storm neared its end. Scientists say that's because the magnetic part of the storm flipped direction.
"We were watching the boxer, expecting the punch. It didn't come," said physicist Terry Onsager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's space weather center in Boulder, Colo. "It hit us with the back of the hand as it was retreating."
Forecasters can predict a solar storm's speed and strength, but not the direction of its magnetic field. If it is northward, like Earth's, the jolt of energy flows harmlessly around the planet, Onsager said. A southerly direction can cause power outages and other problems.
Thursday's storm came in northerly, but early Friday switched to the fierce southerly direction. The magnetic part of the storm spent several hours at that strong level, so combined with strong radiation and radio levels, it turned out to be the strongest solar storm since November 2004, said NOAA lead forecaster Bob Rutledge.
By late Friday morning the storm was essentially over, forecasters said. But they had a new flare from the same sunspot region to watch. Preliminary forecasts show it to be slightly weaker than the one that just hit, arriving somewhere around 1 a.m. EST Sunday.
The storms are part of the sun's normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach a peak next year.
"This is what we're expecting as we approach solar maximum,"" Onsager said. "We should be seeing this for the next few years now."
AP Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report
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