Weather tracker: Geomagnetic storms trigger northern lights

Estimated read time 2 min read

Night skies were lit up around the world by a spectacular display of the northern lights on Friday, with sightings seen widely across Europe, the US and even New Zealand (as the southern lights). The lights occur when charged particles emitted from the sun reach the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases around the magnetic poles triggering breathtaking night-time auroras.

In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a “severe” G4 geomagnetic storm event, but by Friday evening it announced conditions had reached “extreme” G5 levels, the highest level on the space weather scale, for the first time since October 2003.

G5 geomagnetic storms carry the potential to cause impacts to modern day infrastructure, such as inducing strong currents in power grids and disrupting satellite communication signals. The Halloween storm of October 2003 caused power outages in Sweden and damaged transformers in South Africa.

A large sunspot cluster about 17 times the size of Earth has been the primary source for this rare event by producing several strong solar flares since Wednesday last week. The region of the sun continued to be active over the weekend, with NOAA saying another period of G4-G5 geomagnetic storms were possible later on Sunday.

Meanwhile, parts of North America continue to endure a historic heatwave through May. In Mexico, the hottest day in history for the month of May was observed last week, with temperatures reaching a brutal 51.1C (124F) in Gallinas on 9 May. This temperature is less than a degree below the all-time national record in Mexico during any month.

A woman in black civil protection uniform hands a bottle of water to a white-haired man in checked shirt and jeansView image in fullscreen

It also set a new monthly record for the whole of the North American continent for May, surpassing the 50.5C recorded on 27 May 1973 in Ballesmi, also in Mexico.

The extreme heat has put immense pressure on the country’s power grid, with blackouts lasting several hours across numerous cities. There have been a reported 159 active wildfires as a result of the extreme heat, covering about 186,500 acres of land, including parts of Mexico’s protected natural areas.

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The heatwave also comes during a water crisis, with much of Mexico experiencing a moderate to exceptional drought. There is no end in sight for this heatwave, with temperatures forecast to reach low to mid-40C through at least the rest of the month.


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