Northern Lights in California: Strong solar storm could make them visible in parts of CA, impact power Friday


SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — Stargazers in Northern California could be in for a treat Friday night. A strong solar storm could make the Northern Lights visible in parts of the state.

But the storm could also impact your power, TVs and radios.

MORE: Stunning telescope image shows ‘God’s Hand’ reaching across the Milky Way

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the outbursts of plasma are capable of disrupting satellites in orbit and power grids here on Earth.

The agency issued a rare geomagnetic storm watch — the first in nearly 20 years.

When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?

The best chance for seeing them we’ve had in years will start Friday evening, with peak viewing overnight between the early hours of 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. Saturday.

What will they look like and where’s the best place to see them?

The images of the Northern Lights you usually see are from long-exposure cameras so it won’t look exactly like that to the trained eye. If we see them on the northern horizon, it will look like a faint, green glow.

They could be visible in parts of the Bay Area, and possibly they may be low on the horizon as far south as Southern California. The best shot of seeing them will be in the Pacific Northwest.

Even if the lights are visible in the Bay Area, experts say where you are might determine if you actually see them or not.

Bryan Mendez, with the UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science, says getting away from the light pollution of the city is your best bet.

“Further in the East Bay might be a good place to head, or up north. Basically, away from the megalopolis of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose,” Mendez said.

You can see maps of the expected auroral activity here. (Note: Navigate to May 11 for N. America to see the map for this event)

Solar storm impact

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s rare geomagnetic storm watch — the first in nearly 20 years — was expected to become a warning Friday night when the effects of the solar outburst were due to reach Earth.

NOAA already has alerted operators of power plants and spacecraft in orbit to take precautions.

“As far as the worst situation expected here at Earth, that’s tough to say and I wouldn’t want to speculate on that,” said NOAA space weather forecaster Shawn Dahl. “However, severe level is pretty extraordinary, It’s a very rare event to happen.”

NOAA said the sun produced strong solar flares beginning Wednesday, resulting in five outbursts of plasma capable of disrupting satellites in orbit and power grids here on Earth. Each eruption – known as a coronal mass ejection – can contain billions of tons of plasma and magnetic field from the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona.

The flares seem to be associated with a sunspot that’s 16 times the diameter of Earth, according to NOAA. An extreme geomagnetic storm in 2003 took out power in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa.

The most intense solar storm in recorded history, in 1859, prompted auroras in Central America and possibly even Hawaii. “That’s an extreme-level event,” Dahl said. “We are not anticipating that” but it could come close.

Families go out in hopes to catch a glimpse

Families from all over the Bay Area drove to Chabot Observatory Friday night to catch a glimpse of the rare Northern Lights over Northern California.

Families from all over the Bay Area drove to Chabot Observatory Friday night.

Belmont resident Amy Kung brought her family in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights.

“There’s a lot of hype, we’re so excited I always wanted to take the kids to see it and we have the opportunity close in our backyard then why not?” Kung said.

Every Friday and Saturday, Chabot astronomers provide free telescope viewing.

Chabot has three, massive and historic telescopes where people can peek into the wonder of the universe.

Santa Clara University Associate Professor of Physics Philip Kesten said you won’t need a telescope to see these rare lights.

“For the eclipse, you had to have certain special things available to you, for the Northern Lights if they’re in the sky you can see them form anywhere,” Kresten said.

Kesten said the Northern lights which are officially called the aurora borealis are spectacular when you can see them, and the reason this event is so exciting is because it doesn’t happen very often.

“There are a lot of things that happen in your life where you miss it and you go oh, I’ll see it tomorrow – I’ll do it tomorrow – this is not one of those things,” Kresten said.

San Francisco resident Elisa Yao first saw the shimmering display on a trip to Abisko, Sweden when it was negative 20 degrees outside.

“It was totally worth it and I almost cried and it looked like green snakes in the sky,” Yao said.

Kresten suggests if you’re looking up and you’re not seeing anything, take your phone out and take a picture.

“Because cellphone cameras are more sensitive to the lights that will be in the Northern Lights than our eyeballs,” Kresten said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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