Wyoming Gets Rare Showing Of Aurora Borealis; Geomagnetic Storm Gives Cowboy State A Show

Wyoming is usually too far south to be an ideal place to observe the aurora borealis but not always. And this past week, interstellar conditions gave skywatchers a thrill...

Jake Nichols

March 04, 20235 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Auroras are a natural atmospheric phenomenon pretty much considered the Holy Grail of skywatching. The dancing polar light show has dazzled humans for millennia, and Mother Earth was blessed with an especially vivid display this past week.  

To catch a northern lights phenomenon, you have to be, well, northern. In the U.S., Alaska is best. Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin will do.   

Wyoming is almost too far south to be an ideal place to observe the aurora borealis but not always. And not when it’s going off like this.   

What Causes The Lights?  

 For all its beauty, northern lights are actually a result of violent space storms. Energized particles from the sun hurtle toward earth, carried by what is referred to as “solar wind” and collide with atoms in the planet’s atmosphere. This meeting of elements causes electrons to get excited and emit various colors.   

The brilliant colors typically include greens (a hue produced by oxygen molecules), reds (a result of nitrogen molecules, and yellows (a mix of both).   

The solar system light show is a reminder that the earth’s magnetic field is hard at work, protecting us from potentially harmful intrusions. Particles from the sun are deflected and funneled toward the earth’s magnetic poles.  

There are also southern lights, visible in the most extreme southern reaches of the southern hemisphere.   

The Perfect Storm  

The reason we were treated to an especially vibrant northern lights phenomenon in late February was due to a perfect storm of events. The perfect geomagnetic storm, that is.  

According to scientists at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), two meteorological events are taking place simultaneously that virtually guarantee some awesome aurora action.  

A “coronal hole high speed stream” and a “rather fast coronal mass ejection,” arrived concurrently. Both are types of solar flares known for influencing geomagnetic storms. This storm is ranked as G3, which is considered strong according to the NOAA scale ratings G1 through G5.    

NOAA can usually predict these prime viewing windows with great accuracy as far out as three days in advance. Those in-the-know keep a close eye on the Space Weather website to learn when they might want to make sure they have fresh batteries in the camera.  

All this science makes for advantageous northern light viewing conditions.  

Auroras As Seen In Wyoming  

Across Wyoming amateur and professional photographers alike reported ‘interstellar’ conditions like they have rarely seen or captured.   

Powell-based photographer Greg Wise found himself driving around at three in the morning on the peak activity day February 27, looking for something interesting to put in the foreground of his northern lights shot.    

“I was hoping to find some horses or cows but no luck,” he said.  

Finally, he settled on a John Deere excavator and snapped off a beauty at 3:45 a.m.  

Courtesy, Greg Wise

While Wise knew exactly what he was looking for, Cowboy State Daily reader Steve LaMothe reached out via email with a video he shot near Red Mountain in Evanston on the morning of February 27—the peak of the aurora borealis.   

“What caught my eye was the way it was undulating in intensity. It appeared to be quite large but was mostly hidden behind the mountains leaving Evanston to the east. Any idea what this was?” LaMothe asked.  

He subject titled the email “Unknown fire?” but what kind of largescale fire is burning in the middle of winter? Admittedly, LaMothe had us stumped for a few days. Then…lightbulb! It had to be the northern lights he had caught on video.   

Courtesy, Steve LaMothe

North of Buffalo, professional photographer Breanna Klamm Whitlock (Xtreme Concepts) mobilized the family for an outing to get her shots of the northern lights.  

“I went out with my husband and daughter who are usually up for all my crazy adventures,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “This event was one of the few that’s been visible to the naked eye. I have been trying to catch auroras for about a year and this one was by far the best. It was a very remarkable night!” 

Courtesy, Breanna Klamm Whitlock

Flight Sight  

Judging from photos gleaned worldwide from the internet, Finland was a perfect place to be for optimal viewing. And what a treat for air travelers on a pair of commercial flights the night of February 27.   

CNN Travel reported passengers on “easyJet flight 1806 from Reykjavik to Manchester and Finnair flight 488 from Kuusamo to Helsinki all got an extraordinary light show for the price of their airfare” when pilots made an extra pass by the spectacle.   

Pilots made the audible in order to give everyone an extended look at the auroras. While the looping maneuver is occasionally done to avoid weather, it is a rare event to burn excess fuel in a tightly-controlled industry.   

Both airlines, however, were pleased with their decisions, according to press releases following the flights.  

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Jake Nichols

Features Reporter