May 10th Aurora Paints The Sky Across The Globe

The sky on the evening Of May 10th and early morning May 11th lit up in an array of colours thanks to one of the strongest solar storms since 2003. Plasma from a powerful solar eruption called a coronal mass ejection (CME) that happened on May 7 and 8th slammed into Earth on Friday (May 10), sparking an intense geomagnetic storm. One of the effects was a supercharged northern lights display, which provided mesmerizing aurora views over the weekend.

The reason extreme geomagnetic storms cause the Northern Lights is because:

  1. Solar Eruptions: These storms begin with eruptions on the surface of the Sun, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These eruptions release huge quantities of charged particles, primarily electrons and protons, into space.
  2. Solar Wind: The charged particles are carried towards Earth by the solar wind, a stream of plasma flowing outward from the Sun.
  3. Earth’s Magnetosphere: When these charged particles reach Earth, they encounter the magnetosphere, which is Earth’s protective magnetic field envelope. The magnetosphere guides these particles towards the Earth’s magnetic poles.
  4. Collision in the Atmosphere: The particles travel along the magnetic field lines and eventually collide with gas molecules in Earth’s upper atmosphere, particularly oxygen and nitrogen.
  5. Energy Release as Light: These collisions excite the gas molecules, causing them to gain energy. When the molecules return to their normal state, they release this energy in the form of light. This light is what we see as the auroras, shimmering in various colors. Oxygen typically emits green or red light, while nitrogen can produce blue or purple light.
  6. Intensity of Storms and Auroras: During extreme geomagnetic storms, the influx of solar particles is much greater, making the auroras more widespread and more brilliant. These intense conditions allow the auroras to be seen over larger areas, sometimes even at latitudes much farther from the poles than usual.

This intense geomagnetic storm brought the first G4 watch from NOAA since 2005 and reached a G5 storm, the first since Halloween of 2003. The G scale rates geomagnetic storms on a scale from G1 (minor) to G5 (extreme) and was developed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Chris Ratzlaff, the lead of Alberta Aurora Chasers, and a leading citizen scientist expert in the field says “G4 storms themselves are not super uncommon; there have been a few in the last year.”

While extremely mesmerizing to watch these solar storms the extreme geomagnetic storms can cause a variety of issues to power, radio frequencies, satellite, and communication systems. In some cases, it can cause complete power grid shutdowns.

In September of 1859, the Carrington Event (the strongest geomagnetic storm in recent history) knocked out telegraph communication across Europe and North America. This powerful geomagnetic storm was named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who observed and documented the solar flare that precipitated the event. This storm had profound effects on the telegraph systems of the time and provided a dramatic demonstration of the Earth’s vulnerability to the Sun’s electromagnetic forces. Here’s what happened and the impact it had:


On September 1, 1859, Richard Carrington and fellow observer Richard Hodgson independently recorded the largest solar flare ever documented. Carrington observed intense white light emanating from sunspots through his private observatory’s telescope. This rare solar flare was visible to the naked eye due to its extreme brightness.

Solar Flare and Coronal Mass Ejection (CME)

The solar flare observed by Carrington was associated with a massive coronal mass ejection that hurtled towards Earth. This CME was exceptionally powerful, taking just 17 hours to reach Earth; normally, such solar emissions take several days to make the same journey.

Effects on Earth

The impact of the CME on Earth’s magnetosphere triggered the most severe geomagnetic storm recorded. The effects included:

  • Widespread Telegraph Disruptions: Telegraph systems across Europe and North America experienced failures. Telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment, some severe enough to start fires. In some cases, telegraph systems continued to send and receive messages despite being disconnected from their power supplies, running solely on the “auroral current.”
  • Vivid Auroras: The aurora borealis, typically seen only near the poles, was visible as far south as Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii. In the Rocky Mountains, the glow was so bright that gold miners started their day at midnight, mistaking the aurora for dawn.


The Carrington Event had significant implications for our understanding of solar-terrestrial interactions. It underscored the potential for solar activity to disrupt human technologies and highlighted the need for monitoring and studying space weather. Today, a similar event would pose serious risks to electrical grids, satellites, and communication systems.

Modern estimates suggest that a recurrence of an event of similar magnitude could cause an internet apocalypse, sending large numbers of people and businesses offline.

By Jenny Hagan

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