This week our fragile blue planet received its periodic reminder that it is ultimately subject to the capricious whims of the sun. At once giving life to the Earth and slowly cooking it in a man-made soup of greenhouse gases, the sun’s effects on our ecosystem are gradual enough to be taken for granted. We – or at least I, in mostly insulation and air conditioner-free Southern California – regard the sun as a nuisance when we regard it at all.
As the sun holds gravitational sway over all matter in the Solar System, its solar winds subject everything in its reach: a relentless, million-mile-per-hour barrage of charged particles that burst free of the sun’s unimaginable gravity. These particles easily extend beyond Pluto, bending the planetary magneto-spheres into their characteristic tadpole-like shapes. As often as a few times a day, instabilities in the sun’s magnetic field cause eruptions on the solar surface with the force of 20 million nuclear bombs that ripple throughout the solar wind. These eruptions, called coronal mass ejections, launch billions of tons of plasma into space at speeds of over a million miles per hour. Every so often, these clouds of plasma hit Earth, causing geomagnetic storms.
Although these geomagnetic storms can occasionally threaten power grids, satellites, and your best friend’s Monday night Bachelorette viewing party, they can also cause the beautiful auroras most typically seen near the magnetic poles to occur closer to the middle latitudes.
Sky watchers at lower latitudes capture rare auroras
While Earth experienced severe geomagnetic storms on Monday and Wednesday afternoon, neither appears to have caused any significant power outages or communication breakdowns. Fortunately, what they did provide was a chance for residents of Earth’s lower latitudes to get a rare glimpse of a variety of auroras – the interaction of these charged particles from the sun with the upper atmosphere of Earth.
American astronaut Scott Kelly, currently aboard the International Space Station, captured the above photo and posted it to Twitter on Monday. In another tweet, Kelly remarked that he’d never before seen a red aurora.
Twitter is a goldmine of stunning auroras
Amateur astronomers and Twitter users on the ground were also treated to some truly spectacular auroras that look like long lost progressive rock album covers – along with the added benefit of not exposing the photographers to massive amounts of radiation.
Realtime Aurora Gallery contributor Philip Granrud took this gorgeous shot of Duck Lake, Montana on Sunday evening:
Another Realtime Aurora Gallery contributor Minoru Yoneto uploaded this image of an aurora above Queenstown, New Zealand on Tuesday evening:
Even people in latitudes as low as Colorado got a chance to experience these auroras, which were reported by residents to be just as cool with or without the recently state-sanctioned herbal remedy.