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Northern lights make appearance over Washington

Northwest astronomy fans got a treat Monday night as clear skies provided an excellent view of the northern lights over Washington state.

Even as an astronomy professor at the University of Washington, James Davenport has never witnessed the northern lights. But on Monday evening around 8:30 p.m., he started hearing that something was happening in the sky above Bellingham, nearly 80 miles away. So he stepped outside to investigate the horizon over Edmonds.

“I walked out the front door with a cup of tea and my camera, not really knowing what to do or what to expect,” Davenport said. “And I snapped a quick picture into the trees toward the north. And I saw this sort of green band and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s there.’"

The faint color was picked up by his camera, but not by the naked eye. So he rushed down to the Edmonds waterfront. There, near the ferry dock, he was able to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, aka the aurora borealis.

“By the time I got set up on the beach there was a crowd of people and there was this great energy among everybody. Everybody knew what they were doing … everybody lined up along the bank.”

The crowd saw bright green lights with flashes of red and white dancing across the sky. The light show lasted for a few hours.

“It was breathtaking. You could just feel yourself captured in the magic of that moment.”

"This is the first time I have ever seen the aurora, and even as a professional astronomer. It was stunning and I am still all amped up the next day about it."

Aurora borealis are the result of solar flares sending clouds of energized particles into space that eventually collide with gases in the Earth's atmosphere. The result is a colorful light show across the sky as the particles interact with the atmosphere.

Davenport says a rather large solar flare likely occurred about two and a half days ago.

"That’s what your eye is seeing," he said. "You are not seeing the solar flare or any of these energetic particles. You are seeing parts of our atmosphere actually glowing, kind of like a florescent light."

It’s unusual to see aurora borealis as far south as Washington state. The lights are more commonly viewed in places like Alaska, Iceland, and in Scandinavia.

But lucky for Davenport and other sky watchers, there was a combination of a fairly big electrical storm, the right orientation of the earth’s magnetic field, and clear skies.

Dyer Oxley contributed to this story.

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