A magnetic storm from the Sun slammed into the Earth's magnetic barrier on Monday, October 24, 2011 at approximately 2PM EDT. This storm resulted from an expulsion of energy from the Sun called a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), which interacts with the Earth's protective magnetic barrier, resulting in the aurora. In the Northern Hemisphere (where we are), this is called the "Northern Lights." However, the lights last night weren't that far North! In fact, a red aurora was spotted Monday night as far south as Virginia and even into Alabama! Here's a picture posted on our WTVR CBS 6 News Facebook Page by viewer Erica Truitt Hall.
(Photo Credit: Erica Truitt Hall, "The Aurora lights from my deck in King William.")
When the CME hit the Earth's magnetosphere (the magnetic field surrounding our planet and protecting us from the Sun's most harmful energy) Monday, it compressed parts of the field, deforming it and creating the geomagnetic storm as a result of the clash between our protective magnetic field and the slamming solar wind plasma. When these solar wind particles interact with our magnetic field, it creates stunning displays of colorful ribbons of light, usually in the polar regions. But when the Earth receives a direct blow from a strong CME, the aurora can be seen in latitudes not accustomed to seeing the Northern Lights. Many parts of North America with clear skies Monday night could see the aurora spilling south of Canada into the U.S.
For your reference, here is a vertical view to let you know where these aurora typically form:
The aurora event on Monday was photographed in more than half of the states in the U.S. You can click here to see a gallery of all pictures taken October 24, 2011 from this aurora event, including from states like Alabama and Arkansas. Also click here for more pictures posted and further updates from SpaceWeather.com.
The red aurora that was seen in the southern U.S. is a rare event, and scientists do not fully understand how this specific type of aurora develops. Click here to read more about the rare red aurora.
If you were able to take pictures Monday evening of the aurora in Virginia, please post them on our CBS 6 Storm Team Facebook Wall by clicking here!
--Meteorologist Carrie Rose