Surprise Aurora Tonight – More May Be Coming

Several well-defined rays grew from a backdrop of "mushy" northern lights about 11 p.m. Tuesday night. Photo: Bob King

It wasn’t exactly in the forecast, but then again, that’s how weather is sometimes. I was out with my class looking at Mars and the Orion Nebula Tuesday night (Feb. 14) about 9:30 p.m. CST when all at once a patch of aurora blossomed in the northeastern sky. It faded but then was replaced by another and another and then a few rays to boot. After we wrapped up our observing time, I drove out to a location with a good open horizon to the north and watched the display for nearly an hour.

Banks of rayed-arcs march across the entire northern sky Tuesday night. The possibility for auroras for the northern U.S. and Canada continues tonight. Photo: Bob King

Soft rays and rayed-arcs lolled about the north slowly coming and going. Nothing dramatic but the pale greens and shifting textures of the the aurora kept me put till my feet nearly froze. At best, rays and diffuse patches reached halfway up in the sky to touch the North Star.

Oxygen molecules glow both green and pink when excited by solar wind electrons spiraling at high speed into the upper atmosphere. Photo: Bob King

It’s now just after midnight and there’s still some glow in the north. If you’re still up or live in the northern U.S. or southern Canada, it might be worth your while to give a look. Here’s the link for the Kp index, an indicator of activity in Earth’s magnetic field, and a second link for viewing the real-time auroral oval. I hope the lights continue to flare up during the night. There’s a possibility they’re connected to a coronal mass ejection from the sun on the 10th, but it’s still unclear. Whatever the reason, I’ll take aurora any way I can get it.

A rich interplay of rays and patchy northern lights livens up the northern sky last night. Photo: Bob King

UPDATE: The aurora may appear again tonight for northerners, so keep an eye out. As far as what caused the Valentine’s Day aurora, it now appears it had to do with the direction of the magnetism blown out by the sun into the solar system. The magnetic field bound up in the solar wind pointed south, partly canceling the Earth’s northward-pointing field and allowing particles in the wind to penetrate the upper atmosphere and spark auroras. You can read more about the how it happens HERE.

10 Responses

  1. stormchaser

    Before reading this, while I was out this morning, I had a suspicion that there was an aurora, because it was cloudy. It seems like that’s how it always works here! I’m glad you got to enjoy it!

  2. Matt

    Hi, I am a student at UMD, and I enjoy photography as a side hobby. I have taken a few night photos, and have even captured a few northern lights in the summer. I currently live in Duluth, but have yet to find a nice clear spot to get a look at the northern sky in Duluth. Can I ask you where the best spot is in Duluth is to see stars and the northern lights? where do you prefer to go? transportation isn’t an issue. it seems everywhere i go there are either trees or hills in the way.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Matt,
      Thanks for writing. Good places are up Rice Lake Road toward Island Lake, scenic Hwy. 61 at and north of Brighton Beach and Jean Duluth Road to Normanna Rd. and into Pequaywan Lake Township. You’ll probably just have to pull off onto a dirt road that looks good. Last night I set up right on Normanna Road. It was late so I was lucky there was little traffic.

  3. Karen

    Hey There,
    My granddaughter is 7 and she’s learning about the Northern Lights in school and of course she wants to see them. We live in Atlanta Ga, so y’all are probably going to be the closest location to us. Can you tell me if they are always viewable or if there is a certain time of year that’s better than other times?
    Thanks for your help,

    1. astrobob

      Hi Karen,
      They can happen anytime but the best times are typically late winter-early spring and then again in fall. They happen most often during times of high solar activity. A couple years ago there was very little going on on the sun, and here in Duluth, Minn. we saw maybe one aurora a year. Now that the sun’s activity is on the upswing, northern lights are becoming more frequent. The peak of the sunspot cycle is coming up next year, so look for auroras to happen more often. Maybe we’ll even get one big enough for you and your daughter to see.

  4. Lisa

    Hi Bob,
    I live in the lakeside are of Duluth and went outside to walk my dog on 2/14 at around 10pm and noticed a very bright star in the north sky that was a different color than most – it had a yellow/gold hue to it. Do you have an idea of what it was? I haven’t seen it before so I was curious as to what it could be. I didn’t notice the Northern lights though and I wish I could have seen them!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Lisa,
      Ah! You saw the star Arcturus. It’s an orange giant star with a very distinctive color. Watch for it to rise higher in the coming weeks.

  5. louise

    Hi Bob —
    I just happened to be at the Amnicon River landing east of Superior that night around 9 and got a great view of the light show over the lake. I watched it for about an hour. But from where I watched, the northern lights all looked pale that night, I would say white or creamy, but in your photos you have wonderful color, including some red. What was I missing?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Louise,
      Glad you got to see it. I was at a very dark site and the rays were at best pale green to my eye. The camera is far more sensitive to color because it accumulates light during a time exposure. The colors are real but often too subtle to be picked up by the human eye. Only when the aurora gets a lot brighter do the greens, reds and purples become clearly visible to the naked eye.

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