Kansans enjoy rare display of northern lights

10/25/2011 12:00 AM

01/26/2012 9:33 AM

Patrick and Andrea Smith had just put their two boys to bed Monday night and were sitting outside their home on the western shore of Cheney Reservoir.

As they enjoyed the pleasant fall under crystal clear skies about 9 o'clock, they saw dancing blue and green lights off to the north.

They had seen a similar sight about five years ago while traveling along U.S. 400 in eastern Kansas. They knew exactly what it was.

Northern lights.

"Once you've seen them," Patrick Smith said, "you recognize them right away."

Still, they gazed in wonderment at the lights that soon turned reddish.

Smith didn't gaze too long before rushing inside to get his camera and sons, Kai, 7, and Marcus, 6, so they could enjoy the rare sight.

Smith took about 15 pictures, including some that are running with this story, before the lights disappeared after about five to 10 minutes.

"It was an interesting night," he said.

Bob Henry, assistant director of Wichita State University's Lake Afton Public Observatory, said the lights were caused by a coronal mass ejection that interacted with the earth's magnetic field.

For the rest of us, that means brilliant shades of blue, green and red lights moving eerily across the sky.

Northern lights usually aren't seen farther south in the United States than Minneapolis and Seattle.

But Monday's display — also known as aurora borealis — was seen as far south as Atlanta, Memphis, Oklahoma City and, of course, south central Kansas, because that mass ejection was much stronger than normal.

"Basically, the sun blew off a whole bunch of highly charged particles into space, traveling at great speeds," Henry said.

Henry has been at the observatory 15 years and said the only other northern lights occurrence in this area was about 10 to12 years ago.

The view of Monday's display was enhanced by dry air and clear skies.

Henry said it is possible for the northern lights to dance across the area's sky again tonight, but tonight's cloudy weather would prevent anyone from seeing them.

A web site, spaceweather.com, keeps tabs on such things as sun spots and northern lights and often predicts when they will happen

Monday's show certainly won't be one that Kai and Marcus will soon forget.

"They made me promise to print some copies of the pictures so they could take them to show-and-tell at school," Smith said.

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