Northern lights seen outside Phoenix after geomagnetic storm

Experts say it's because of a geomagnetic storm and a sun eruption.
Published: Mar. 24, 2023 at 8:52 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - What if we told you you didn’t have to go to Iceland or Alaska to see the northern lights? People saw them right here in Phoenix Thursday night- a completely rare phenomenon.

Some were lucky enough to catch the colors on camera, so how could we see this incredible sight so far south? It was a typical flight from Burbank to Phoenix, or so Dakota Snider thought. “I thought there’s no way that there’s like a possibility that we’d be able to see them this far south,” said Snider. He knew the northern lights were supposed to be active Thursday night but surely not over Arizona...right? Wrong!

He could faintly see them out his window, his iPhone picking them up even more. So, he set up a makeshift tripod with his professional camera and captured stunning pictures. “I took a handful of different long exposure shots and it was just incredible,” Snider said.

Meanwhile, on the ground, a storm chaser and photographer, John Sirlin, drove just north of Saguaro Lake and stood on a hill. He didn’t even need his camera to see them. “Once it really got going, there was about 15-20 minutes where you could see the height of it with the naked eye which absolutely blew me away, like I’m out here in the middle of the desert watching the aurora!” said Sirlin.

He captured a sight you’d never likely see- the northern lights behind cacti. “I could see the individual pillars pulsating above the horizon, moving back and forth behind the saguaro and I thought this is just so wild,” said Sirlin. Wild and rare.

Bill Murtagh with the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center said we had a severe level 4 geomagnetic storm after an eruption of the sun that came toward earth. “The bigger the magnetic disturbance, the more that oval essentially spreads out and extends further south. That’s what happened last night,” said Murtagh. “The thing is everything has to be perfect.”

That meant it had to happen at night, with people awake, with no cloud coverage, and with less moonlight for Arizonans to see them. ASU space weather professor Katrina Bossert said there’s a reason both Snider and Sirlin saw the color pink versus green. “It’s likely they were seeing these higher up aurora. It was easier to view from these further south regions,” said Bossert.

Snider chalked up the whole experience to this: “The opportunity to get to see the northern lights while you’re wearing shorts on an airplane is a pretty unique experience, and that about sums it up, right?” said Snider.

So, will we see these again in Arizona? Those two experts said likely yes! They said the sun goes through an 11-year cycle, and it will hit a solar maximum in 2024, so they said over the next two to four years, we could see this a few more times as south as Arizona.