Northern Lights visit Deep South

Northern Lights visit Deep South

October 26th, 2011 by Andy Johns in News

The Northern Lights were captured in this photo around 8:30 p.m. CDT Monday in Arab, Ala. Photo by Jonathon Stone

Lucky stargazers and anyone else looking skyward Monday night were treated to a rare sight: The Northern Lights visited the Deep South.

"It's unusual to see aurora activity this far south but not impossible," said David Dundee, an astronomer at the Tellus Science Museum in Northwest Georgia.

A powerful solar storm caused the Northern Lights, scientifically known as the aurora borealis, to light up the sky in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama on Monday. Scientists said there is a slim chance it could reappear other nights this week.

Jonathon Stone, an amateur astronomer in Northeast Alabama, said he could hardly believe what he saw.

"It's just something I've always wanted to see," he said Tuesday. "I didn't know what it was at first."

But he quickly realized when the red lines raced across the sky with a flash or two of green during the 15-minute show around 9:30 p.m.

Robert Marlowe, a professor of physics at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the lights are caused by excited particles released from the sun colliding with nitrogen and oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. When the molecules collide, the energy is released in the form of bright colors.

The phenomena is a frequent occurrence in Canada, Alaska and Antarctica because the magnetic forces from the poles pull the particles to the far north and south, Marlowe said. The lights were visible in Dixie because there were enough particles to overload the polar regions and spread south.

Marlowe remembered the lights appearing over Chattanooga about six years ago.

"It wasn't super brilliant, but you could tell there was a rosy glow in the night sky," he said.

There's not a great chance of seeing them again this week, but it is possible. If the lights are present, there's no secret to spotting them.

"Just be somewhere dark," Marlowe said.

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