When nature meets technology: Phone cameras bring the northern lights to life, during solar storm

Thanks to smart phone technology, our gadgets can see what the naked eye can't

Published May 11, 2024 11:27AM (EDT)

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) illuminate the sky of San Francisco North Bay as seen from China Camp Beach in San Rafael, California, United States on May 11, 2024. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) illuminate the sky of San Francisco North Bay as seen from China Camp Beach in San Rafael, California, United States on May 11, 2024. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Dazzling images of the northern lights — visible as far south as Arizona — have been made possible, in part, by dark mode photography features on our cell phones.

The aurora borealis, a phenomenon usually relegated to the northernmost parts of the globe, is lighting up the skies thanks to a massive G5 category solar storm, which is expected to continue through Sunday

While sky-watchers are reporting naked eye visibility throughout swaths of the U.S., those struggling to see the natural glow might have a powerful tool in their pocket. Michael Bettwy, the Chief of Operations at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, said people can snap a pic of the phenomenon for a clearer view.

“You may not be able to see it with your naked eye, but if you have a clear night with not that many clouds, and you put your phone to the sky, you may actually get an image or two,” Bettwy said in a Friday briefing.

Per Brent Gordon, Chief of Space Weather Services Branch for SWPC, technology in our phone cameras — the long-exposure feature known as dark mode or night mode on many devices — will enable amateur photographers to see the auroras.

“Things that the human eye can’t see, your phone can,” Gordon said in the briefing. “It’ll be interesting to see just how far south we’re getting aurora images.”

The colorful displays caused by disturbances to Earth’s magnetic field from solar particles were exacerbated by the storm, which tossed an influx of “coronal mass ejections” and expanded visibility as far south as Tucson, Arizona. 

If you have a dark mode photography feature on your phone, you can give snapping an aurora pic a whirl Saturday and Sunday nights, before the solar storm ends. Per Hello Aurora, a northern lights tracking service, using a tri-pod and turning on a feature like night mode or a manual longer exposure time create optimal conditions for pics, along with choosing a dark environment free of light pollution.


By Griffin Eckstein

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