Solar storm brings northern lights to Bay Area; no major disruption reported

In this image taken with a long exposure, people look at the night sky towards the northern lights, or Aurora Borealis, on Friday, May 10, 2024, in Estacada, Ore. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a rare severe geomagnetic storm warning when a solar outburst reached Earth on Friday afternoon, hours sooner than anticipated. The effects were due to last through the weekend and possibly into next week. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

By Tom Krisher, Josh Funk and Marcia Dunn | Associated Press

A powerful solar storm put on an amazing skyward light show across the globe overnight but has caused what appeared to be only minor disruptions to the electric power grid, communications and satellite positioning systems.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said extreme geomagnetic storm conditions continued Saturday, and there were preliminary reports of power grid irregularities, degradation of high-frequency communications and global positioning systems.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that as of Saturday morning, no FEMA region had reported any significant impact from the storms.

NOAA predicted that strong flares will continue through at least Sunday, and a spokeswoman said in an email that the agency’s Space Weather Prediction Center had prepared well for the storm.

On Saturday morning, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service said on its website that service had been degraded and its team was investigating. CEO Elon Musk wrote on X overnight that its satellites were “under a lot of pressure, but holding up so far.”

Brilliant purple, green, yellow and pink hues of the aurora borealis — the northern lights — were reported worldwide, with sightings in Germany, Switzerland, London, Prague, Barcelona and elsewhere.

In the U.S., Friday’s night’s solar storm pushed the lights much further south than normal. People in California and Oregon, as well as Midwest states as far south as Kansas, were able to capture photos of colors along the horizon.

If you missed the display, you’ll have another chance from about 10 p.m. Saturday until 2 a.m. Sunday;  clear skies overnight are forecast for the Bay Area. Viewing is best away from city lights. Scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center said the best aurora views may come from phone cameras, which are better at capturing light than the naked eye.

Visible in the daytime is another phenomenon associated with the solar storm: People who’ve saved their solar eclipse glasses will be able to see without magnification a sunspot in the sun’s lower right quadrant.

The flares seem to be associated with the sunspot, 16 times the diameter of Earth, NOAA said. It is all part of the solar activity ramping up as the sun approaches the peak of its 11-year cycle.

The agency issued a rare severe geomagnetic storm warning when a solar outburst reached Earth on Friday afternoon, hours sooner than anticipated.

NOAA alerted operators of power plants and spacecraft in orbit, as well as FEMA, to take precautions.

“For most people here on planet Earth, they won’t have to do anything,” said Rob Steenburgh, a scientist with NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

This storm poses a risk for high-voltage transmission lines for power grids, not the electrical lines ordinarily found in people’s homes, NOAA space weather forecaster Shawn Dahl told reporters. Satellites also could be affected, which in turn could disrupt navigation and communication services here on Earth.

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