Second Night of Auroras Seen ‘Extreme’ Solar Storm

The Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, glow on the horizon over Punta Arenas, Chile, on May 10, 2024. (AFP)
The Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, glow on the horizon over Punta Arenas, Chile, on May 10, 2024. (AFP)
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Second Night of Auroras Seen ‘Extreme’ Solar Storm

The Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, glow on the horizon over Punta Arenas, Chile, on May 10, 2024. (AFP)
The Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, glow on the horizon over Punta Arenas, Chile, on May 10, 2024. (AFP)

Auroras lit up skies across swaths of the planet for the second night in a row on Saturday, after already dazzling Earthlings from the United States to Tasmania to the Bahamas the day before.

A powerful solar storm -- which could continue into Sunday -- has triggered spectacular celestial shows usually confined to the far northern reaches of the planet, hence their nickname of the "northern lights."

"I have the sensation of living through a historic night in France... It was really charged, with solar particles and emotions," Eric Lagadec, an astrophysicist at the Observatoire de Cote d'Azur, wrote on social media after the first night.

"Find good spots, away from the lights, with a clear view to the north!"

Late Saturday evening, pictures again started trickling onto social media as people in the United States reported sightings, though not as strong as Friday night's.

The first of several coronal mass ejections (CMEs) -- expulsions of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun -- came just after 1600 GMT Friday, according to the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC).

It was later upgraded to an "extreme" geomagnetic storm -- the first since the "Halloween Storms" of October 2003 that caused blackouts in Sweden and damaged power infrastructure in South Africa.

Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights are seen in Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, May. 11, 2024. (The Canadian Press via AP)

Friday's storm was listed as hitting level five geomagnetic conditions -- the highest on the scale. Saturday saw G3 to G5 conditions, with G4 or higher conditions predicted Sunday and G3 conditions possible into Monday.

But no major disruptions to power or communications networks appear to have been reported this time around, despite initial worries from authorities.

There have only been "preliminary reports of power grid irregularities, degradation to high-frequency communications, GPS and possibly satellite navigation," the SWPC said.

Elon Musk, whose Starlink satellite internet operator has some 5,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, said his satellites were "under a lot of pressure, but holding up so far."

However, China's National Center for Space Weather issued a "red alert" Saturday morning, warning the storm will impact communications and navigation in most areas of the country, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Auroras were visible in the northern half of the country, according to media reports.

Worldwide excitement

Excitement over the phenomenon -- and otherworldly photos pink, green and purple night skies -- popped up across the world, from Mont Saint-Michel on the French coast to Payette, Idaho -- in the western United States -- to Australia's island state of Tasmania.

Aurora Australis lights in Oatlands, Tasmania, Australia, 11 May 2024 (issued 12 May 2024). (EPA)

Unlike solar flares, which travel at the speed of light and reach Earth in around eight minutes, CMEs travel at a more sedate pace, with officials putting the current average at 800 kilometers (500 miles) per second.

The CMEs emanated from a massive sunspot cluster that is 17 times wider than our planet.

People with eclipse glasses can also look for the sunspot cluster during the day.

The Sun is approaching the peak of an 11-year cycle that brings heightened activity.

NOAA's Brent Gordon encouraged the public to try to capture the night sky with phone cameras even if they couldn't see auroras with their naked eyes.

"You'd be amazed at what you see in that picture versus what you see with your eyes."

Spacecraft and pigeons

Fluctuating magnetic fields associated with geomagnetic storms induce currents in long wires, including power lines, which can potentially lead to blackouts. Long pipelines can also become electrified, leading to engineering problems.

Spacecraft are also at risk from high doses of radiation, although the atmosphere prevents this from reaching Earth.

NASA has a dedicated team looking into astronaut safety and can ask astronauts on the International Space Station to move to places within the outpost that are better shielded.

Even pigeons and other species that have internal biological compasses could be affected. Pigeon handlers have noted a reduction in birds coming home during geomagnetic storms, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The most powerful geomagnetic storm in recorded history, known as the Carrington Event after British astronomer Richard Carrington, occurred in September 1859.



Hollywood Movies Rarely Reflect Climate Change Crisis. These Researchers Want to Change That

This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)
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Hollywood Movies Rarely Reflect Climate Change Crisis. These Researchers Want to Change That

This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)

Aquaman might not mind if the oceans rise, but moviegoers might.

That's one of the takeaways from a new study conducted by researchers who set out to determine if today's Hollywood blockbusters are reflective of the current climate crisis. The vast majority of movies failed the “climate reality check” proposed by the authors, who surveyed 250 movies from 2013 to 2022.

The test is simple — the authors looked to see if a movie presented a story in which climate change exists, and whether a character knows it does. One film that passed the test was the 2017 superhero movie Justice League, in which Jason Momoa's Aquaman character says, “Hey, I don't mind if the oceans rise” to Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne, The AP reported.

But most movies fell short — fewer than 10% of the 250 films passed, and climate change was mentioned in two or more scenes of fewer than 4% of the films. That's out of touch with a moviegoing public that wants “to see their reality reflected on screen,” said Colby College English professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, lead researcher on the study.

“The top line is just that the vast majority of films, popular films produced over the last 10 years in the United States, are not portraying the world as it is,” Schneider-Mayerson said. “They are portraying a world that is now history or fantasy — a world in which climate change is not happening.”

Researchers at Maine's Colby College published the study in April along with Good Energy, a Los Angeles-based environmental consultancy. The results were peer reviewed, and the authors are seeking publication in scientific journals. The researchers view the test as a way for audience members, writers and filmmakers to evaluate the representation of climate change on screen.

Some results were surprising. Movies that at first glance appear to have little overlap with climate or the environment passed the test. Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach's emotive 2019 drama about the collapse of a relationship, passed the test in part because Adam Driver's character is described as “energy conscious,” Schneider-Mayerson said.

The 2022 whodunnit Glass Onion and the 2019 folk horror movie Midsommar were others to pass the test. Some that were more explicitly about climate change, such as the 2021 satire Don't Look Up, also passed. But San Andreas, a 2015 movie about a West Coast earthquake disaster, and The Meg, a 2018 action movie set in the ocean, did not.

The authors narrowed the selection of movies by excluding films not set on Earth or set before 2006 or after 2100. They found streaming services had a higher percentage of movies that included climate change than the major studios did.

The study is “valuable for marketing purposes, informational purposes, data accumulation,” said Harry Winer, director of sustainability at the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Winer, who was not involved in the study, said it could also help serve as an incentive to connect audiences with climate stories.

“The audience will be more open to hearing a dialogue about what is right and what is wrong,” Winer said. “It's a conversation starter.”

The study authors said they see the climate reality check as a kind of Bechdel-Wallace test for climate change. Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist, is credited with popularizing that test in the 1980s by incorporating her friend Liz Wallace's test about gender representation in film into a comic strip. The test asks if a movie includes at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man.

Bechdel herself spoke highly of the study's climate test, which she described as “long overdue” in a social media post during this year's Academy Awards season. Bechdel said in an e-mail to The AP that “for a movie set in the present to ignore this existential threat just doesn't make sense anymore" in the age of climate change.

“I do worry that screenwriters might do it in a kind of rote way, which could be counterproductive, just like rote ‘strong female characters’ are," Bechdel said. "But injecting an awareness of our communal plight into the stories we ingest seems like a no-brainer.”