Aurora Borealis witnessed on Big Island – Maui Now

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Brenda Trowbridge felt a pang of sadness Friday after her husband told her about a show the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, would be putting on for various parts of the continental United States over the weekend.

Brenda Trowbridge captured Aurora Borealis outside her Nā‘ālehu home early on May 11, 2024. Photo credit: Brenda Trowbridge

“I was going to miss it,” Trowbridge initially thought.

But she didn’t.

Owner of a coffee farm in the Ka‘ū District, Trowbridge woke up after 4 a.m. on Saturday to get her day started. Blurry-eyed, she checked the Ka‘ū Bulletin Facebook page and saw a story that indicated Hawai‘i had a chance to see the light show.

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At that point, Trowbridge said she ran outside.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. There they were.

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“It was a beautiful purple and greenish tinge visible to the naked eye for about 5 minutes,” Trowbridge shared on social media.

The Nā‘ālehu resident captured the images with a 3-second exposure on her iPhone between 4:26 and 4:31 a.m. on May 11, before the astronomical twilight.

Mike Bettwy, operations chief at the Space Weather Prediction Center with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, said the agency got reports of Aurora Borealis sightings across the world.

“We heard of reports as far south as Puerto Rico and South America,” Bettwy said, adding he’s not surprised people in the Hawaiian Islands also saw the lights.

Bettwy said it’s quite rare to see the Aurora Borealis in Hawai‘i noting sightings are reported once every 20 to 30 years.

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The intensity of the lights was a result of solar flares occurring on the sun’s surface.

The sun, a huge ball of electrically charged hot gas, goes through a solar cycle every 11 years.

During that cycle, NASA explains the sun’s north and south poles switch places causing sun spots and solar flares. Bettwy said solar flares are part of the natural cycle of the sun.

“Because of where the flares occurred on the sun all the matter was directed at the earth,” Bettwy said.

Bettwy said the lights tend to ebb and flow adding they can put on a good display for 20 to 30 minutes then disappear, with the best viewing happening where the sky is clear and there is no light pollution.

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“People might be able to see it with the phone even if you can’t see it with your eyes,” Bettwy said.

Despite the major activity, Bettwy said scientists haven’t seen any major impacts as a result of the solar flares.

When solar flares are this active, Bettwy said there are concerns that satellites will be knocked out of orbit or power grids could go down. None of those things have occurred.

The other impact they are concerned about is for astronauts on the International Space Station, maintained in low Earth orbit,  being exposed to radiation. There are no reports of that occurring at this time.

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