Northern lights visible across Illinois amid rare geomagnetic storm

Northern lights visible across Illinois amid rare geomagnetic storm

A rare solar storm produced dazzling displays of color early Saturday, illuminating the night sky in much of the Northern Hemisphere, including Illinois.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an alert for the extreme geomagnetic storm Friday afternoon. The northern lights stretched as far south as Northern California and Alabama, and are expected to last into Sunday and possibly early next week.

“(Illinois) was in a good bullseye,” said Shawn Dahl, a service coordinator at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “The aurora last night should have been seen well into the sky if there was no light pollution.”

The last geomagnetic storm of this magnitude was in October 2003, so strong that it cause power outages in Sweden damaged transformers in South Africa.

The northern lights, also known as aurora borealis, are produced when charged particles streaming from the sun collide with Earth’s magnetic field. A sunspot cluster 17 times the diameter of Earth is currently emitting the particles.

“They’re interacting, breaking apart, reconnecting, and it releases light, and that’s what we see as the northern lights,” Dahl said.

Amid the storm, there were some reports of power grid irregularities and disrupted communications, though most of them were able to be mitigated, according to Dahl.

Space weather forecasters anticipate that the aurora will be visible at least through Monday, weather permitting. Those hoping to catch a glimpse should venture to areas far from light pollution, outside of Chicago. The best viewing time will likely be from around 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

“The further north you are the better, of course, but really just pay attention and make sure that you’re aware of the space weather conditions,” Dahl said.