Virginia photographers capture rare phenomenon in the night sky; was it the aurora?

A stable auroral red arc was photographed over parts of Virginia Sunday night

Photo of a stable auroral arc taken over the Great Valley Overlook by WSLS 10's meteorologist Chris Michaels (Copyright 2023 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

ROANOKE, Va. – On Sunday, I posted a forecast to Facebook by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

This forecast showed the potential for photographers to get a glimpse of the aurora borealis on Sunday evening.

The earlier sunset had some grabbing their cameras and heading to a darker spot in hopes of dancing with lady aurora.

What they found was something different - a stable auroral red (SAR) arc.

Keep reading to see what that is and how it’s different than the aurora borealis.

I don’t claim to be a photographer by any means, but I decided to make the trek up the Blue Ridge Parkway that evening.

That was especially after seeing several actual photographers posting their findings to social media.

The key to capturing the SAR was using long exposure settings on your phone/camera and reducing light pollution.

It just so happens that the SAR coincided with a strong geomagnetic storm.

Let’s explain.

There isn’t much that’s known about the SAR, however, according to space.com, a stable auroral arc will happen when light from only oxygen molecules is heated by an electric current around Earth.

It’s actually different than the aurora. The aurora borealis, which we commonly know as the northern lights, will form when a solar storm interacts with Earth’s magnetic field, setting off a dance of different colors.

How the aurora borealis forms

The strength of the geomagnetic storm will determine how far south the aurora becomes visible. The height of the interaction will determine the color(s) that you see.

The aurora is difficult to predict, and it oftentimes is only a few hours beforehand that we have any idea of it happening. That said, we will do our best to make you aware of its possibility.

Send your pictures to wsls.com/pins if you managed to catch the aurora or the SAR on camera.


About the Author

Meteorologist Chris Michaels is an American Meteorological Society (AMS) Certified Broadcaster, forecasting weather conditions in southwest Virginia on WSLS 10 News from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. weekdays on Virginia Today.

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