Northern lights, meteor light up Whidbey night

Just before the strongest geomagnetic storm in 21 years, a fireball left some residents in awe.

The aurora that painted Whidbey’s sky of pink, green and purple last Friday night will forever remain impressed in the minds of those who were there to experience it.

But just a few days before the strongest geomagnetic storm that has reached the planet in 21 years, some were awestruck at the sight of a fireball falling from the sky.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center, the aurora that occurred between Friday night and Saturday morning was the result of an “extreme” geomagnetic storm. It was the first G5 storm — the strongest on NOAA’s space weather scale — since October 2003.

The northern lights were especially visible on Whidbey Island, with regional media publishing photos taken by locals. The Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record Facebook request for people to share photos of the event quickly drew hundreds of photos and comments.

Geomagnetic storms happen when the sun ejects plasma and electromagnetic radiation into the cosmos. This “solar wind” travels at high speed towards the Earth, where it makes contact with the magnetic field around the planet, collides with particles in the upper atmosphere and produces light, according to Britannica.

Geomagnetic storms can affect power grids, navigation systems and satellite internet networks like Starlink. Some residents connected to Starlink, including Record photographer David Welton, had trouble connecting to the service, which is operated by a subsidiary of Elon Musk’s Spacex, Starlink Services.

For many residents, like Gina Davenport-Shields from Oak Harbor, it was their first time viewing northern lights. As she drove around, she couldn’t find a spot that wasn’t packed with people, so she went to Pass Lake and snapped an awe-inspiring photo.

Tony Edwards, who is the vice president of the Island County Astronomical Society, saw the aurora from his deck in Anacortes between Friday night and Saturday morning. Despite the city lights around, he could still see it with no trouble, though the colors were more visible on camera.

Cierra Rose said she admired the northern lights from West Beach in Oak Harbor. At first, she said, she didn’t have high hopes and could only see the colors through her camera. As the night went on, she could see the colors with her own eyes.

Patrick Hanlon, a Navy sailor who was previously deployed to Iceland, said the aurora he saw from the Clinton ferry was more spectacular than the ones he had seen overseas.

As many shared the wonder with family and friends while laying on a blanket at the beach or sitting on the porch, others, including a very regretful Whidbey News-Times reporter, traded a once-in-a-lifetime event for a simple good night sleep.

While the aurora was highly anticipated, the week also featured an unexpected guest star.

At about 9:50 p.m. on May 6, some Facebook users on the South Whidbey Alerts/Community group reported seeing a “big ball of light” fall from the sky.

Robert Lunsford, a member of the American Meteor Society, said the organization received 80 reports of the object, which came from the east and was seen as far north as Kamloops in British Columbia and as far south as Portland, Oregon.

There is currently a major meteor shower that happens every year from late April to mid- or late May — the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. According to NASA, the Eta Aquarids meteors come from the Halley comet, whose nucleus sheds dust grains of ice and rock that collide with the Earth’s atmosphere. In October, these meteors are known as Orionids.

However, according to Lunsford, the Eta Aquarids are only visible from 2 a.m. to dawn, therefore the event is most likely a random occurrence and not associated with any major shower.

The object was a fireball, which he said is a meteor that is larger and brighter than usual. Most meteors, he said, are the size of pebbles, and 99% of them disintegrate while still high in the atmosphere.

Meteors the size of a softball can produce a flash “as bright as the full moon,” he said. That is because they hit the atmosphere at speeds that can range from five to 45 miles per second.

Though the Eta Aquarids peaked on May 6, they can still be seen in the sky in the early morning, before dawn.

The next meteor shower visible from Whidbey, the Perseids, is expected to peak on the morning of Aug. 11 or 12, Lunsford said.

Gina Davenport-Shields captured the aurora with her phone Friday night, from Pass Lake. Mount Erie is visible on the background. (Photo by Gina Davenport-Shields)

Gina Davenport-Shields captured the aurora with her phone Friday night, from Pass Lake. Mount Erie is visible on the background. (Photo by Gina Davenport-Shields)

The view from the Langley marina Friday night. (Photo by the Whidbey Island Pearl Co.)

The view from the Langley marina Friday night. (Photo by the Whidbey Island Pearl Co.)