‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ aurora borealis event covers Vancouver Island

'Once-in-a-lifetime' aurora borealis event covers Vancouver Island

A historic solar storm produced a spectacular Aurora Borealis show over Vancouver Island, producing rare colours that one astronomers calls a “once-in-a-lifetime event.”

The effects of a strong solar storm were fully displayed last night across Vancouver Island, with hundreds of photos taken in rural and heavily congested areas.

The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, were viewed across the country and as far south as Florida and Mexico.

“It’s an extremely rare event…people plan to go to Norway or Alaska [to see them],” said retired astronomer Dennis Crabtree.

PHOTOS: Photo gallery shows Northern Lights over Vancouver Island

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) previously issued a “G4” geomagnetic storm watch earlier this week after several coronal mass ejections (CMEs) were detected from the sun.

“CMEs are explosions of plasma and magnetic fields from the sun’s corona,” said NOAA in a release Friday.

Watch the full report below:

NOAA eventually confirmed that Friday night’s storm reached G5, the highest rank on the index, which can potentially take out electrical grids.

In 1989, Quebec experienced a blackout from a solar storm that lasted nine hours.

“They improved their safety mechanisms in place so that it wouldn’t happen again and I think the fact that we haven’t heard anything shows that whatever they did worked,” said Crabtree.

Why it was rare

Northern Lights aren’t uncommon to see on the Island, but Crabtree says the emitted colours prove how rare this solar storm was. Typically, green dominates as the primary colour, but red and blue were photographed on Friday.

When a CME occurs, billions of the sun’s particles are ejected. As it interacts with Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, particles hit oxygen and nitrogen atoms.

“That material comes spiralling into the north magnetic pole of the Earth and hits atoms of the atmosphere, high up 50, 60, 150 miles up, and that is what gives us the colour of the aurora,” said Crabtree.

When particles hit oxygen, they produce green and red colours.

“Rarely, if it’s a really strong storm, so it penetrates the magnetic field down to 40 miles up, it hits nitrogen molecules and that’s what will give us the blues in the sky,” said Crabtree.

The retired astronomer says solar storms happen every 11 years as part of a 22-year solar cycle. While CMEs can happen at any time, they are more likely to happen at the end of solar cycles.

“It’s just a reminder that ‘Oh it’s bigger, it’s bigger out there than just us here,'” said Amy Archer, vice-chair for Friends of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DOA).

Archer says they’ve been inundated with phone calls, emails, and lots of photos of the Northern Lights.

“I’ve been able to see the Northern Lights before, but never like this. Never. It was so incredible,” said Archer.

The DOA has had a busy year of astronomical events, following last month’s solar eclipse.

Archer says there’s been an increased interest in astronomy following the two events and they’re hoping to see increased participants at their international astronomy day event next week.

The solar storm is expected to last until Tuesday, according to NOAA, with possible G5 events happening overnight on Sunday.

Crabtree says seeing the Northern Lights could be possible in darker viewing areas overnight Sunday, but notes the severity of the solar storm is dwindling.

Oli HerreraOli Herrera

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