The Northern Lights observed in southern Nevada on April 23, 2023.
Courtesy of Matthew Woods
A meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Las Vegas found webcam footage showing the northern lights, aka aurora borealis, appearing over southern Nevada early Friday morning.
Matthew Woods knew to check webcams for the aurora borealis Friday morning because National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center had forecast a strong geomagnetic storm would occur. He spotted the aurora, which appear as pillars of light traveling across the sky, in footage captured by a Bureau of Land Management camera on Angel Peak at nearly 9,000 feet. The mountain is 30 miles from the Strip, as the crow flies.
“First I checked webcams farther north, but there was too much cloud cover,” Woods said. “Here over southern Nevada, skies were mostly clear.”
Woods has observed northern lights before and photographed them outside Las Vegas from the Desert View Overlook near Lee Canyon in April (see photo at the top of the story). So he knew what to look for on the webcam.
“I was prepared to go out and take some photos myself, but it arrived too late and I was like, ‘I have to go to work in the morning,’” he said. “I don’t think you would have seen it if you were standing in Vegas. I think there was too much light pollution.”
The webcam footage features a 10-second timelapse of 90 minutes of footage, he said.
Bryan Brasher, a project manager with the prediction center, viewed the video. “It’s very likely the aurora, but keep in mind you couldn’t have asked for better conditions,” Brasher said. “You’re at the top of a big mountain. … The higher you are the further north you can see. You had ideal viewing conditions combined with the fact that we had conditions in the forecast that things [the aurora] could get farther south than normal.”
Article continues below this ad
The Dec. 1 geomagnetic storm was a level 3 out of 5 on NOAA’s scale. These storms occur during “coronal mass ejections,” when the sun unleashes powerful bursts of energy and throws out giant balls of plasma, Brasher said. When the charged plasma particles enter Earth’s magnetic field, they excite oxygen and nitrogen molecules that emit light.
“Last night was an interesting one because over a couple days, the sun had a couple coronal mass ejections, or CMEs,” he said. “There were four different ones ejected from the sun. … The last of those four was the most Earth-directed, pointed straight at us. The fourth one, you can imagine like a snow plough. The first three cleared the way, so the fourth went faster than it otherwise would have.”
The northern lights most commonly occur in far northerly latitudes over remote locations such as Greenland and Iceland, but during strong storms, like the Dec. 1 one, they can appear farther south.
“The aurora is a very complex and it’s not unusual for the aurora to appear further south than is forecast,” Brasher said. “It’s a highly complex phenomenon based on innumerable variables. … Things outside our forecast are possible.”