Why Nebraskans had front-row seats to the northern lights

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – A release of charged particles from the sun turned into a powerful geomagnetic storm on Earth on Sunday night.

The storm’s rating reached a G4 out of 5.

“This all started on the 21st,” UNO professor Len Hillhouse said. “There was a coronal mass ejection from the sun. It took roughly two days to get here.”

Experts like Hillhouse, who studies astronomy and astrophysics, say this intensity has not been seen since the early 2000s.

Because of that intensity, even many in Nebraska were able to see the show.

SEE ALSO: PHOTOS: Northern lights visible in Nebraska

And not only could most of Nebraska see it, but photos also came in from as far south as San Diego, New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.

This rarity is caused by Earth reacting to the sun.

The sun has very strong magnetic fields, which act like rubber bands.

Material from the sun in the form of plasma, a composition of charged particles, gets caught in these rubber bands.

“Essentially what happens is shear forces break that rubber band,” Hillhouse said. “And when that rubber band breaks, all the material in that rubber band is then released out into the solar system.”

Out of this process, we get the northern lights.

“The northern lights are basically caused when those particles reach the atmosphere, and then they begin to interact with the particles in Earth’s atmosphere,” Hillhouse said. “What happens is what we call an energy transition.”

When the particles of the atmosphere get “excited” during this, they want to return to a relaxed, balanced state.

By doing that, they release light in an array of colors.

“You get the different colors in the aurora because of the difference in the composition of Earth’s atmosphere,” Hillhouse said. “So when you see green, that’s an oxygen molecule that’s returning to its relaxed state. When you see red or blue, that’s a nitrogen atom.”

The sun can be harmful, but in the matter of aurora borealis, experts say to take advantage of it.

“Go out and enjoy it,” Hillhouse said. “You know, I’ve read and looked at all the reports. There’s no danger from it. You might have a glitch in your GPS, but this thing’s almost over anyway, so just go out and enjoy it. Have fun.”

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