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SALT LAKE CITY — People have reported seeing the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, in Utah for the past few days.

Patrick Wiggins, a local NASA Ambassador from Tooele, said the Northern Lights seen here are not exactly rare, but very unusual. He said he even has reports of sightings in northern Arizona.

He explains the solar flare that causes the phenomenon as a “belch” from the sun.

“Basically the sun burps, and this time it burped really well and was able to push it further south,” he said. “What happens to cause this in the first place, not just here on Earth, we’ve seen it on other planets too, you get this stuff from the sun and when it interacts with our upper atmosphere – depending on what gas is activated – You get these different colors.”

In early March, there were reports of sightings in Colorado, and pilots rotated planes over New York so passengers could see the lights from the air. It happened again in the last few days.

“The last time we saw a really good burp from Utah was around 2000,” Wiggins said.

However, we don’t want the burps to be too strong. He was referring to an event in the fall of 1859 known as “the Carrington Event,” one of the largest ever recorded in human history, he said.

“It literally shorted out telegraph wires; People were being electrocuted because of all the electricity that was in the air from that thing,” he said.

It was a sunny September 1, 1859 when Richard Carrington looked through his telescope as usual.

Looking through his telescope, he saw “two brilliant beads of blinding white light appearing over the sunspots and rapidly intensifying,” according to NASA. He realized he was witnessing an historical event and went to get a second witness.

When they returned in less than a minute, Carrington wrote: “I was mortified to find that it had already been weakened by much change.” Witnesses saw the white patches minimize to mere needles before disappearing before five minutes had elapsed.

It was later determined that what they saw was a “white light solar flare, a magnetic explosion on the sun.”

Early the next morning, before the sun dawned, skies around the world were lit up with colors — red, green, purple — auroras so brilliant that “newspapers could be read as easily as daylight,” according to NASA .

Auroras were pulsing everywhere, near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, all over the world.

Sunspots were sketched by Richard Carrington on September 1, 1859.  The event was a historical anomaly.
Sunspots were sketched by Richard Carrington on September 1, 1859. The event was a historical anomaly. (Photo: Royal Astronomical Society, NASA)

It literally came as a shock to the world. That was when telegraph systems around the world failed and spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set telegraph paper on fire. Even after the power was removed, NASA solar physicist David Hathaway said that “aurora induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.”

That’s why Wiggins said we didn’t want those “burps” to be too strong.

“If that happened today, many of our satellites would be erased. They’re pretty, we like to see them, but not too much please,” he chuckled.

It’s not certain when or if the lights will illuminate Utah’s skies again, but the Space Weather Prediction Center has an aurora forecast on its website.

To see the lights, you should have a clear view of the northern horizon after dark, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center, with best observing times a few hours after midnight. The website states that the best viewing times are near the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, so now may be the chance for Utahans to see the shimmering skies.


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