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Storm from space sparks greatest light show on Earth

The solar flare from last week resulted in spectacular northern lights in parts of Minnesota and other northern states. NBC's Brian Williams reports.


The solar storm that swept past Earth over the weekend didn't disrupt any power grids, but it did turn on the auroral lights for skywatchers over a wide swath of North America, extending at least as far down as Arkansas.

SpaceWeather.com cataloged stunning photos from the usual places in northern climes, including Canadian provinces as well as the northern tier of the United States. But this particular solar storm — sparked by last Thursday's big coronal mass ejection, or CME — didn't stop there. Photographers sent in pictures from Arkansas as well as Ohio, Nebraska, Utah, California and other locales well south of the usual places. There were auroral images as well from Scotland, Hungary, and yes, from New Zealand, Tasmania and the South Pole at the other end of the world.


Observers knew they were in for something big, due to the fact that the flare associated with the solar eruption reached an extreme level of X1.4 on the classification scale for solar outbursts. The radio blast from a sunspot region known as AR 1520 resulted in a strong radio blackout for some high-frequency communication systems, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center.

Extreme solar storms have been known to knock out electrical grids as well as satellites, but this one apparently had no ill effects. Today, the prediction center said the stormy space weather "is finally showing signs of weakening."

"No further significant activity has occurred, and while Region 1520 has become less of a threat, it still has the potential for further activity," the center reported.

The sun is heading toward the high point of its 11-year activity cycle, with the maximum expected next year. That means this weekend's storm could just be a foretaste of what's ahead for aurora-watchers and space weather forecasters over the coming months. In the meantime, check out this gallery featuring the latest pictures from the world's greatest light show:

Brad Goldpaint / Copyright 2012 Goldpaint Photography

Photographer Brad Goldpaint snapped multiple frames of the northern lights on July 15. "I had an incredible experience last night capturing the aurora borealis over Sparks Lake in Central Oregon," he said in an email sent on Sunday. For more of his work, check out the Goldpaint Photography website.

Photographer Brian Emfinger captured this time-lapse video view of the auroral display over Ozark, Ark., on July 15. "There was a very faint red glow off and on most of the night, but around 2 a.m. CDT it began increasing. Around 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. there were pretty good outbursts," Emfinger told SpaceWeather.com. For more from Emfinger, check out RealClearWx.com.

This time-lapse video shows the effects of the solar storm in northern lower Michigan on July 16 from Guy Strong on Vimeo.

Robert Snache / Spirithands Photography

The subtle glow of the aurora competes with the glare of a signal light at the Ojibway Bay Marina, as captured over the weekend by photographer Robert Snache of Rama First Nation in Ontario. For more of Snache's pictures, check out Spirithands Photography's Facebook page.

Randy Halverson / Dakotalapse

Rare pinks and blues glow in the skies over Kennebec, S.D., in a picture of the northern lights captured by Randy Halverson on July 15. "It was bright to the eye at the time this was taken," Halverson told SpaceWeather.com. "Clouds made it difficult to get good pictures, though." More of Halverson's imagery can be seen on the Dakotalapse website.

More auroral glories:


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.