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Northern lights go way, way south

NBC's Brian Williams reports on the southern spread of the northern lights.

A solar outburst sparked surprising displays of the northern lights as far south as Arkansas, Mississippi and North Carolina tonight, marking one of the farthest-reaching auroral shows in years.

As word spread about the geomagnetic storm, photos streamed onto the Web from the usual places, such as Norway, Sweden and Iceland, but also from locales that are typically too far south to see the northern lights: Oklahoma ... Kansas ... Kentucky ... Tennessee ... Virginia.

Among the websites tracking the fireworks are SpaceWeather.com, the Weather Channel and Universe Today.

Brian Emfinger / www.realclearwx.com

Photographer Brian Emfinger captured this view of the northern lights from a spot near Ozark, Ark.

Arkansas photographer Brian Emfinger was alerted to the northern lights by SpaceWeather.com's aurora alert. "I ran out and put my camera out and immediately saw reddish aurora," he wrote. "I ran out into the field, and within a few minutes the aurora went crazy!"

Randy Halverson / Dakotalapse.com

Photographer Randy Halverson saw a beautiful green and red aurora over Wisconsin.

Photographer Randy Halverson captured a whole string of auroral pictures from a vantage point west of Madison, Wis., with his 16-year-old son, River. Father and son were amazed to see how bright the lights were. "At one point they were so bright they lit up the ground," Randy wrote.

Richard Miller

Richard Miller was visiting Washington Court House, Ohio, when he snapped this picture of the reddish aurora.

Richard Miller, a resident of London, was visiting Washington Court House, Ohio, when he snapped a picture of the red glow over the neighborhood. "Seeing the Aurora Borealis on my family visit to Ohio made the trip one to remember," Miller told me in an email. "As an amateur astronomer, I've never seen anything like it before."

David DelaGardelle / maddwarfworkshop.com

David DelaGardelle snapped this picture of the northern lights as he was heading home from his Indiana workshop.

David DelaGardelle, who's a full-time blacksmith/swordmaker/artisan in Indiana, was driving home from his Mad Dwarf Workshop when he saw the spectacle. He said he was awestruck by the sight of "blood-red northern lights aflame in the night sky."

Jeff Berkes

Pennsylvania photographer Jeff Berkes captured a quick image of the auroral glow.

Jeff Berkes, a Pennsylvania photographer who shared a photo of the Orionid meteor shower with us earlier today, also sent in a quick snapshot of the northern lights. "They were only out for a few minutes, and I was only able to get off five shots, two of which were blurry from the car shaking," he wrote in an email.

The cause of the show was a coronal mass ejection from the sun that hit Earth's magnetosphere at about 2 p.m. ET, SpaceWeather.com reported.

The impact caused a strong compression in the magnetic field, allowing electrically charged particles from the solar wind to penetrate down to geosynchronous orbit (22,000 miles or 35,000 kilometers in altitude). That means Earth-orbiting satellites could have been exposed to the solar storm, analysts said.

Solar activity is on the upswing toward an expected peak of the sun's 11-year cycle in 2013, and the past few months have been marked by strong auroral activity. Here's a picture of an aurora as seen from the International Space Station on Sept. 29 as it flew over the midwestern United States.

Consult NASA's Earth Observatory website to get your bearings, and watch this QuickTime video for a moving experience of the space station's flyover:


This greenish auroral display was seen from the International Space Station on Sept. 29 as the orbital outpost was passing over the American Midwest. The city lights of Omaha, Des Moines, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago and St. Louis are visible below.

All these pictures may be pretty, but stronger solar storms can have a significant downside: They could disrupt satellite communication as well as power grids. There were no immediate indications that tonight's bout of space weather caused significant problems.

More auroral glories:

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