The science behind West Virginia’s vivid night skies & how to track them in the future

By Jonathan Eggleston, Real WV

West Virginia residents were treated to a celestial spectacle over the weekend as the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, graced the night skies across the Mountain State. This rare phenomenon, usually linked to regions much farther north, painted the sky with vibrant hues of green, purple, red and orange, captivating onlookers and photographers around the state.

The Aurora Borealis is a result of solar storms, eruptions of magnetic energy from the sun’s surface, which send charged particles hurtling towards Earth. When these particles collide with gases in the atmosphere, particularly oxygen and nitrogen, they produce the mesmerizing light display known as the Aurora. Here is a chart showing what each color represents during a solar storm.

Credit: Canadian Space Agency

Credit: sciencenotes.org

While sightings of the Northern Lights are more common in regions closer to the Arctic Circle, witnessing them in West Virginia is a pretty rare occurrence and a special treat! The fact that they appeared this far south highlights the intensity of the current solar activity.

This image showcases the full solar disk with quite a few sunspots taken on May 10th. The big cluster of spots on the right side is the culprit for this intense Aurora display. 

Source – @west virginia astrophotography association

Solar activity follows an 11-year cycle, classified by periods of solar maximum and solar minimum. During solar maximum, (which we are currently experiencing) solar activity is at its peak, resulting in more frequent and intense solar storms.

The appearance of the Aurora Borealis in West Virginia underscores the heightened solar activity and the unique opportunity it presents for sky gazers and photographers that don’t normally get to experience this occurrence. Some of West Virginia’s rising landscape photographers have captured some truly stunning images of this phenomenon , showcasing the beauty of the aurora and the dedication it takes to capture these rare moments.

Astronomers have classified this strong Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) as what is known as a “Cannibal CME,” causing astronomers to issue a G4 geomagnetic storm watch for the entire weekend.

A cannibal coronal mass ejection is when one smaller CME is overtaken and engulfed by a larger, faster-moving CME, consuming and combining the two.

Cannibal CMEs like this one are rare, but become more likely during the solar maximum.

Geomagnetic storms have the potential for disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field. peaking on Friday night into Saturday morning, forecasts indicated a Kp Index ranging from 7 to 8+, indicating a very high chance of witnessing a major Aurora Borealis display.

Source: My Aurora Forecast & Alerts Mobile App 

Source: NOAA/SWPC Boulder, Co. USA

The KP Index is a scale that measures geomagnetic activity, ranging from 0 to 9, with higher numbers indicating stronger geomagnetic activity. Monitoring the KP Index allows people to track solar activity and predict the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights in your region. You can stay informed about solar activity and the KP Index through various resources, including online space weather websites and mobile applications. Here is a great app for free to keep track of all solar activity for anyone interested: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.jrustonapps.myauroraforecast

While the prospect of witnessing the Northern Lights in all their glory excites sky gazers, keep in mind the powerful geomagnetic storm could cause fluctuations in power grids, disrupt satellite communications, and even impact GPS navigation systems.

As excitement built for this rare opportunity, Astronomers urged sky watchers to stay informed about the evolving situation and take necessary precautions, while also embracing the awe-inspiring spectacle of nature’s light show.

Here are some incredible images from a few rising photographers across West Virginia, showcasing the sky from various locations. Please Take a moment to enjoy these beautiful images and appreciate the beauty of nature from that special place that we call home…

New River Gorge Image Credit –  Aurora over New River Captured by WV Landscape Photographer Marcus Constantino from the iconic New River Gorge.

Bear Rocks – Aurora over Bear Rocks Reserve at the Dolly Sods Wilderness captured by WV Landscape Photographer David S. Johnston.

Northern Lights Illuminates the landscape over the iconic Scenic Highway located in Pocahontas County. Captured by WV Landscape photographer Leiane Gibson.

Summersville WV – Aurora over quiet little barn in Summersville WV, by landscape Photographer Anne Johnson.

Dodridge County Park – These images showcase the ribbons of the Aurora, as seen from Dodridge Co. Park. Captured by Jeremy Bumgardner, President of Insight Astronomy located Bridgeport WV. 

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