Solar Flares Light Up The Night Sky

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Rim country residents had prime seats Friday night for a rare southern appearance by the northern lights.

No one called the Payson Police Department to report the show, but one couple caught the two-hour spectacle on film.

"About 5 degrees off the horizon there was a green-blue glow, and the rest of the sky was just curtains of red with shooting blue flames," said Payson resident Dawn Schur.

Schur and her husband, Chris, who is an amateur astrophotographer, were setting up their camera equipment just before 11 p.m. when the night sky turned red.

"Chris was getting ready to do some photography anyway when this happened, so we were there when it started" Dawn said. "The main light pattern was in the northern sky, but this was so large it pretty much filled the sky from the southeast to the southwest."

Although displays of the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are unpredictable, especially in this part of the hemisphere, Schur and her husband received a heads-up. The couple belong to a solar alert network through "Sky and Telescope" magazine. "Whenever there are major sun flares," Dawn said, they send out an alert."

Chris, who has seen the northern lights four times since moving to Arizona from Michigan 20 years ago, said he was told "something pretty major was erupting on the sun.

"It takes a couple of days for it to hit the earth," he said, "so we knew if anything was going to happen the time was about right."

The sun is in a phase known as solar maximum, said Kathy Eastwood, professor of physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University.

"The sun undergoes 11 year magnetic cycles," she said, "and right now it's at its peak.

"At its maximum, there are more sunspots and flares or energy bursts energetic particles coming off the sun. They don't hurt humans but they can wreak havoc with our communications systems. They can disrupt radio transmissions," Eastwood said.

They can also create the kind of light show witnessed Friday in the Rim country.

"We get the auroras because charged particles hit the gas in the atmosphere, give it energy and make it glow," she said.

The lights were visible in various parts of Arizona, including Phoenix, and were seen nearly as far south as Mexico City.

"Because of the earth's magnetic field," Eastwood said, "we normally only get the northern lights at the poles."

While the lights were visible in Flagstaff, Eastwood missed the show.

"I was annoyed because I was at church Sunday morning when somebody mentioned it happened," she said. "I have never seen it."

Mark Giampapa, deputy director of the National Solar Observatory on Kitt Peak near Tucson didn't see anything either.

"There were no reports of it being seen in this area," he said.

But Giampapa is not surprised that the lights were spotted this far south.

"There's an unusually large group of sun spots on the surface of the sun right now," he said.

Sun spots are sites of intense magnetic fields and they generate the flare-like activity that gives rise to auroral displays. The fact that the lights were visible in this latitude is proof that powerful flare activity is going on, Giampapa said.

The larger question is why the cyclical activity occurs.

"It is one of the mysteries of solar physics," he said.

Chris Schur, who was working on some new photography techniques from his home observatory when the northern lights appeared, said that red tends to be the predominant color when the northern lights stray from the poles.

"The magnetic fields tend to lose their strength the farther they get from the poles," he said, "and that makes the red color of the weaker fields dominant."

Because the sun is at solar maximum, he thinks the lights could make another appearance in the next few weeks.

"From what I understand, solar max happens over a period of several months, so it could happen again," he said.

But part of the fun for the Schurs Friday night was the element of surprise. Dawn, who helps Chris with his photography, said that while she has seen a lot of things in the night sky during the 11 years she and her husband have lived in Payson, the show put on by the northern lights was truly special.

"It was just total excitement," she said.

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