Aurora Bainbridge-alis: see the Northern Lights tonight

For the first time since 2005, islanders may be able to witness an extremely rare celestial event this evening: the aurora Bainbridge-alis.

The Battle Point Astronomical Association plans to open the Ritchie Observatory at 9:30 tonight to try and catch a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, in Washington skies.

“With clear skies also forecast, that means there’s a chance that we will be able to see the Aurora Borealis from right here on Bainbridge Island!” BPAA president Frank Petrie said.

The Space Weather Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is on watch for a severe geomagnetic storm starting May 9. At least five clouds of plasma from the sun, called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), will be headed Earth’s way May 10-12. The agency determined that the CMEs likely originated from a cluster of sunspots 16 times the diameter of Earth, which has been emitting strong solar flares over the past several days.

When CMEs hit Earth, they interact with oxygen and nitrogen the planet’s atmosphere, which manifests to the naked eye as the aurora borealis.

“Geomagnetic storms can trigger spectacular displays of aurora on earth,” NOAA representative Erica Grow Cei says in a news release. “A severe geomagnetic storm includes the potential for aurora to be seen as far south as Alabama and Northern California.”

Powerful storms can also damage the electrical power grid and interfere with radio and satellite waves. This is the second severe geomagnetic storm to occur this year, and only the third to occur during the current 11-year solar cycle. The Halloween Storms in October 2003 resulted in power outages in Sweden and damaged transformers in South Africa.

The center states that it has notified the operators of these systems so they can take preventative action.