The Northern Lights of March 1989

Emerald Radiance by Shawn Malone

Emerald Radiance, photo by by Shawn Malone

Last week on Michigan in Pictures for a post titled Heavy (space) Weather,  I referenced The 23rd Cycle:Learning to live with a stormy star by Dr. Sten Odenwald. This out-of-print book is available online for free and explores the impact of solar storms upon our electromagnetic grid. Chapter 1 is titled A Conflagration of Storms, and it begins with an account of one of the most memorable aurora borealis I’ve ever experienced:

On Thursday, March 9, 1989 astronomers at the Kitt Peak Solar Observatory spotted a major solar flare in progress. Eight minutes later, the Earth’s outer atmosphere was struck by a wave of powerful ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. Then the next day, an even more powerful eruption launched a cloud of gas 36 times the size of the from Active Region 5395 nearly dead center on the Sun. The storm cloud rushed out from the Sun at a million miles an hour, and on the evening of Monday, March 13 it struck the Earth. Alaskan and Scandinavian observers were treated to a spectacular auroral display that night. Intense colors from the rare Great Aurora painted the skies around the world in vivid shapes that moved like legendary dragons. Ghostly celestial armies battled from sunset to midnight. Newspapers that reported this event considered the aurora, itself, to be the most newsworthy aspect of the storm. Seen as far south as Florida and Cuba, the vast majority of people in the Northern Hemisphere had never seen such a spectacle. Some even worried that a nuclear first-strike might be in progress.

Read on for more about the impact of this and other solar storms or check out the whole book.

While I couldn’t find photos from ’89 of these amazing northern lights, I was able to get a really cool photo from one of Michigan’s best aurora photographers, Shawn Malone. About the display above from November 14, 2012 she writes:

I think this photo is my favorite to date. It felt like years of observing and photographing resulted in the reward of being able to catch this image. Beautiful place, right time, right conditions, and a great geomagnetic event materialized!

You can purchase the photo at at and see many more in her Northern Lights Gallery.

There’s more from Shawn and LOTS more about the Northern Lights on Michigan in Pictures.

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