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Stunning Auroras Lit Up St. Patrick's Night

Mar 18, 2015 01:07 PM EDT

Just yesterday, while everyone was pinching, pounding down beer, or having an existential meltdown over the truth about shamrocks, people in Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and Iceland got the Northern Lights show of a lifetime. That's because a stunningly powerful solar storm supercharged the auroras in these regions, lighting up the evening sky with some festive colors.

"It's all part of this amazing, wonderful interplay between our star, our planet, and our planet's magnetic field - and it's all conspiring to produce... well, really, I think the most spectacular natural phenomenon that we know of," Will Gater of the Slooh community observatory said in a recent video of Iceland's St. Patrick's Day aurora. (Scroll to read on...)

So what exactly is that "amazing, wonderful interplay?" The solar storm in question began with a coronal mass ejection (CME) on the surface of the Sun that was far more violent than expected. It hurled superheated solar matter straight at the side of the Earth just over Europe, and these charged particles are trapped and excited by Earth's magnetosphere until they are energetic enough to influence the atmosphere, creating visible lights in the sky. The "dancing" of these lights is a show of the magnetosphere's own mobility.

It's for this very reason that scientists use auroras on other planets, and even on our solar system's largest moon, to help them better understand these foreign magnetic fields.

On Earth, they most commonly produce light that looks green to you or I, making it absolutely fitting for a holiday that celebrates the feast day of Ireland's first saint, but it can also slip into other spectrums. (Scroll to read on....)

The lights reached far beyond their projected influence, becoming visible even in north-central North America.

The NOAA added in a statement that while this CME, causing a G2 to G3 (moderate-strong) geomagnetic storm (with G4 spikes) on Tuesday was no threat to our satellites or electronics, that doesn't mean all of these pretty light shows are harmless.

Last year, the combined forces of a G3 and G1 storm from a pair of back-to-back CMEs posed the threat of causing massive ground induced currents (GICs) - which can disrupt power distribution through underground cables.

A US government sponsored panel responsible in preparing for these kinds of events had estimated in 2008 that the GIC could inflict a staggering $1 to $2 trillion dollars worth of damage, and launched an effort to reinforce the US power grid.

Since then, little-to-no damage has been inflicted by solar storms on US infrastructure, save for the occasional radio and GPS disruption.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).


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