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Solar tsunami heads towards Earth, another aurora show expected

May 12, 2024

Another aurora could be on the way as a solar tsunami blasts from the Sun towards Earth's atmosphere.

Overnight, New Zealanders across the country were treated to a spectacular show of aurora activity with vivid colourful skies after material spat out of a huge spot on the sun and into Earth's magnetic field.

Otago University physics professor Craig Rodger said central and lower South Island regions were likely to see aurora activity again overnight but people in the upper North Island, like Auckland, were less likely to see it with the naked eye.

The US Space Weather Prediction Centre (SWPC) showed this patch of activity was set to fade by midnight, but another flare explosion on the Sun has hurled a solar tsunami towards Earth, he said.

The SWPC forecast that burst of activity to arrive late Monday afternoon to early evening.

"So more auroral activity is possible tomorrow too. Once again, not Auckland aurora though."

Some places where people missed out on seeing the Southern Lights on Saturday night may have a better chance of seeing them on Sunday evening - but Aucklanders may still be left in the dark.

Many in Wellington and the Deep South were unable to see the stunning light show due to cloudy conditions, but MetService meteorologist Claire O'Connor said those areas should be clearer tonight.

The South Island was looking cloudier than Saturday night with the exception of Buller and south of Oamaru, she said.

The North Island will have mostly clear skies on Sunday evening.

One Poneke resident, who headed to the south coast on Saturday night, said there were hundreds of cars doing the same, and traffic was "absolute gridlock".

Paddy said the cloud cover meant the only red lights he saw was a stream of tail lights. "I saw a stream of red tail lights but no red in the sky."

The last time there was such a strong storm was in 2003.

However, this weekend's storm was not as big as those experienced in 2001 and 2003, Rodger said.

"We have been working with the New Zealand electricity industry in our solar tsunamis research project to look at what would happen if there was an extreme storm for New Zealand, something that was more like one in 100 years, and the conclusion is that is something we need to prepare and be concerned about, this event is something like 50 times smaller than those extreme storms."

He believes the Earth could experience more solar storms in the coming weeks because the Sun would remain in its active period for a year.

"The Sun is moving into its period, it's called solar maximum which is when it's at its most restless and most explosive on the Sun and so something big could well happen in the next few weeks, probably it will be a bit smaller than this."

MetService said most of the country had good visibility of Saturday's aurora, and it had received many photos of purple and crimson skies.

But many people wanting to see it in places including Wellington, Marlborough and the Deep South were thwarted by cloudy conditions.

Transpower extends notice over solar storm

Astronomer Ian Griffin, from Otago Museum, said the material from the Sun was interacting with Earth's magnetic field and generating electric currents, which could affect things like the power grid.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the powerful solar storm was likely to continue the rest of the weekend.

It said the storm might pose risks to navigation systems, power grids, and satellite navigation, among other services.

On Saturday, New Zealand national grid operator Transpower shut down some power circuits as a precaution.

Rodger said the geomagnetic disturbance was continuing, but the intensity was starting to decrease.

The national grid emergency notice for some areas of the country has been extended until 8pm, but Transpower said there had been no problems so far.

A spokesperson said there had been no power cuts and the circuits would be reinstated once it was safe to do so.

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