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Here's what's behind the latest northern lights display

This month has been a good one for aurora photographers, and Thursday night featured auroras as far south as New Mexico. So what’s behind the latest light shows, and can we expect more?

‘I got to see pinks, purples, reds, greens, everything. It was pretty remarkable,’ says photographer

The northern lights over a frozen farm field in Alberta
The northern lights lit up the sky in southern Alberta in the early hours on Friday. (Neil Zeller)

The northern lights lit up the sky across North America on Thursday, with sightings reported as far south as New Mexico. 

It was yet another spectacular aurora display, in what has been a busy spring so far.

"It was just absolutely insane," said Matt Melnyk, who has been photographing auroras for more than 15 years in southern Alberta.

He caught the most recent show. 

The northern lights over mountain peaks at high elevation
Matt Melnyk was able to catch Thursday night's aurora show. (Matt Melnyk)

"Different colours bursting with pillars, and I got to see pinks, purples, reds, greens, everything. It was pretty remarkable."

Aurora forecasters say the most recent show was unexpected and stronger than most we've seen recently. Melnyk said it was a rare sight, especially for those further south.

Auroras are measured on a KP level index between one and nine. Thursday night hit level eight, which is extremely rare, Melnyk said. 

Cathleen Mewis was also able to catch the show on Thursday night. 

She photographs auroras near Saskatoon and is a part of the Saskatchewan Aurora Hunters Facebook page. 

"I hummed and hawed, should I go out?" she said.

"I got in my car and I drove out and I had a spot in mind to go to a church and I didn't even make it there because the sky just exploded," she said. 

The sky filled with northern lights.
Cathleen Mewis said the northern lights lit up the entire sky near her home in Saskatoon. (Cathleen Mewis)

Mewis said she was out early for aurora hunting on Thursday and was able to catch the lights at around 8:45 p.m. She said it was one of the best she's seen yet. 

"It was barely sunset and it was just crazy … reds and blues and it was just amazing," she said. 

Mewis said the aurora is worth getting out to see, even if it means leaving your warm house and getting out in the cold.

"People can't understand the experience until you're standing there watching it and it's just … it's just awe inspiring."

Lots of lights lately

Aurora activity is tied to activity on the surface of the sun. When the sun releases solar flares and solar wind toward Earth it interacts with our magnetic field and atmosphere.

Those solar storms can cause a number of issues on earth. Strong solar storms can cause electrical failures and problems with GPS and communication, even satellite launch failures. 

But active auroras are one of the more spectacular side-effects. 

"That energy shows itself by shooting electrons down our magnetic field line," said Bill Archer, a mission scientist with the Canadian Space Agency.

"It hits our atmosphere and it lights it up as if it were a neon light."

A man stands on the road with auroras overhead
Impressive light shows like this one in early March are more likely as we move towards solar maximum. (Matt Melnyk)

The display on Thursday night was the product of an exceptionally strong geomagnetic storm — a disturbance of the Earth's magnetic field. 

And it's just the beginning according to Archer. As the sun becomes more active, looking to peak in activity in 2025, he said that we could see some of the strongest storms in years.

"Right now we're moving into a solar maximum, which means it's more likely that things like that are going to happen," he said

"Not only will we see more auroras, but the aurora that we see will be stronger."

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.


Christy Climenhaga

CBC Meteorologist

Christy Climenhaga is a meteorologist and CBC Edmonton's climate reporter, covering the impacts of climate change for the Prairies. She has worked as a CBC on-air meteorologist for more than 10 years, in the North and Saskatchewan. Have a climate question? Reach out at christy.climenhaga@cbc.ca.