Image: Northern lights
Rune Stoltz Bertinussen  /  AP
The northern lights are seen near the city of Tromsoe in northern Norway late Tuesday.
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updated 1/24/2012 9:52:02 PM ET 2012-01-25T02:52:02

A storm from the broiling sun turned the chilly northernmost skies of Earth into an ever-changing and awe-provoking art show of northern lights on Tuesday night.

Even experienced stargazers were stunned by the intensity of the aurora borealis that swept across the night sky in northern Scandinavia after the biggest solar flare in six years.

"It has been absolutely incredible," British astronomer John Mason cried from the deck of the MS Midnatsol, a cruise ship plying the fjord-fringed coast of northern Norway.

"I saw my first aurora 40 years ago, and this is one of the best," Mason told The Associated Press, his voice nearly drowning in the cheers of awe-struck fellow passengers.

U.S. space weather experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday evening that so far they had heard of no problems from the storm that triggered the auroras, which made it as far south as Wales, where the weather often doesn't cooperate with good viewing.

It was part of the strongest solar storm in years, but the sun is likely to get even more active in the next few months and years, said physicist Doug Biesecker at the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo.

"To me this was a wake up call. The sun is reminding us that solar max is approaching," Biesecker said. "A lot worse is in store for us. We hope that you guys are paying attention. I would say we passed with flying colors."

Those who got to see Tuesday night's colorful display marveled at the brilliance.

"It was the biggest northern lights I've seen in the five, six years that I've worked here," said Andreas Hermansson, a tour guide at the Ice Hotel in the Swedish town of Jukkasjarvi, above the Arctic Circle.

He was leading a group of tourists on a bus tour in the area when a green glow that had lingered in the sky for much of the evening virtually exploded into a spectacle of colors around 10:15 p.m. local time

"We stopped the bus. And suddenly it was just this gigantic display of dancing lights and Technicolor," said Michele Cahill, an Irish psychologist who was on the tour. "It was an absolutely awesome display. It went on for over an hour. Literally one would have to lie on the ground to capture it all."

But in temperatures of 30 below zero Fahrenheit (-35 degrees Celsius), that didn't seem like a good idea.

How auroras arise
An aurora appears when a magnetic solar wind slams into the Earth's magnetic field, exciting electrons of oxygen and nitrogen.

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The northern lights are sometimes seen from northern Scotland, but they were also visible Monday night from northeast England and Ireland, where such sightings are a rarity.

"The lights appear as green and red mist. It's been mostly green the past few nights. I don't know if that's just special for Ireland," said Gerard O'Kane, a 41-year-old taxi driver and vice chairman of the Buncrana Camera Club in County Donegal in Ireland's northwest corner.

He and at least two dozen amateur photographers were meeting after dark at a local beach for an all-night stakeout. They've been shooting the horizon from dozens of locations since Friday night.

Scientists have been expecting solar eruptions to become more intense as the sun enters a more active phase of its 11-year cycle, with an expected peak in 2013.

But in recent years the sun appeared quieter than normal, leading scientists to speculate that it was going into an unusually quiet cycle that seems to happen once a century or so.

Effects on Earth
The electromagnetic burst associated with the start of this week's storm occurred at about 11 p.m. ET Sunday, reaching medlum levels. Then, on Monday and Tuesday, the proton radiation from the eruption hit strong levels, the most powerful since October 2003. That mostly affects astronauts and satellites, but NASA said the crew on the International Space Station was not harmed, and Biesecker said only a few minor problems with satellites were reported.

Some airplane flights over the North Pole were rerouted because of expected communication problems from the radiation.

Geomagnetic storms cause awesome sights, but they can also bring trouble. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, problems can include current surges in power lines, and interference in the broadcast of radio, TV and telephone signals. No such problems were reported Tuesday.

A few more days of fireworks
Peter Richardson, a 49-year-old bar manager and part-time poet at the 17th-century Tan Hill Inn in northern England, said the pub — normally dead on a Monday night in January — was thronged until the wee hours of the morning with people who came to look at the lights.

"I just thought: 'Oh my God, this is just absolutely amazing,'" he said. "You do get a lot of spectacular skylines out here, but that was just something out of the ordinary. Very different."

Ken Kennedy, director of the Aurora section of the British Astronomical Association, said the northern lights may be visible for a few more days.

The Canadian Space Agency posted a geomagnetic storm warning Tuesday after residents were also treated to a spectacular show in the night sky. John Manuel, a scientist with the Canadian Space Agency, said there was an increased chance of seeing northern lights over northern Canada.

"It's not likely people in the major Canadian cities further south will see a significant aurora tonight," he said Tuesday. "There's always a possibility but the current forecast is for a good show for people who live further north. It should be a particularly good night tonight."

More about solar storms:

AP Science Writer Borenstein reported from Washington. AP writers Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Raphael Satter in London and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Solar storm could disrupt power grids

Photos: Auroral lights

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  1. St. Patrick's Day green

    The aurora borealis, or northern lights, fill the early morning sky on March 17, 2013, above the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai, Alaska. (M. Scott Moon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Snowy landscape

    The northern lights glow over a snowy Finnish landscape in a photo taken on the night of Jan. 16-17, 2013, by Thomas Kast.

    Watch the time-lapse video on Vimeo. (Thomas Kast) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Starry night

    Swirls of green and red appear in an aurora over Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory on the night of Sept. 3, 2012. The northern lights were sparked by a storm of electrically charged particles that was thrown off by the sun on Aug. 31. (David Cartier, Sr. / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. View from above

    NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, flight engineer of the Expedition 32 crew onboard the International Space Station, recorded this image of Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, on July 15, 2012, from an altitude of approximately 240 miles.The Canadarm2 robot arm is in the foreground. (Joe Acaba / NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Summer delight

    Robert Snache, a photographer living in the Rama First Nation in Ontario, captured this view of the northern lights on the night of July 8-9, 2012. For more about Snache and his work, check out Spirithands Photography on Facebook. (Robert Snache / Spirithands Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Norwegian lights

    Thorbjørn Haagensen took this picture of the northern lights on April 3, 2012, from Hillesøy, close to Tromsø in northern Norway. The winter season is prime time for auroral displays, but with the onset of spring, the northern lights begin to pale up north. "Beginning in the middle of May, the midnight sun brings sunshine all night long," Haagensen said. (Thorbjørn Haagensen) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Heavenly glow

    Jonina Oskarsdottir captured this picture of the northern lights on March 8, 2012, over Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland. "No words can describe the experience of the northern lights tonight," Oskarsdottir told SpaceWeather.com. She used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera to take the shot, with a Canon 14mm f/2.8L USM II lens set for ISO 1600 ... and a 1-second exposure. (Jonina Oskarsdottir / via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Alaskan green

    The skies over the frozen Susitna River near Talkeetna, Alaska, are lit up by a display of the northern lights on Jan. 23, 2012. The aurora was enhanced by solar flares in the days preceding the event. (Michael Dinneen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Spectral scene

    It's almost as if these two separate events of nature were fuming at each other. The northern lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano on the evening of April 22, 2010. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Halloween treat

    A geomagnetic storm produced a colorful show of aurora borealis in the skies over Hyvinka in southern Finland on the morning of Oct. 31, 2003. (Pekka Sakki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Majestic mountains and sky

    The colors of sunrise and the northern lights add to this view of a Perseid meteor streak on Aug. 12, 2000, as seen from the Colorado Rockies. (Jimmy Westlake / Colorado Mountain College) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Graceful ballet of light

    The northern lights dance over the Knik River near Palmer, Alaska, on Nov. 29, 2006. (Bob Martinson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Otherworldly feel

    John Carlson of Lutsen, Minn., said he was "surprised by the intense activity of the aurora" on Aug. 29, 2008. He took this beautiful but eerie photograph. (John Carlson / John and Sallie Carlson) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Midwestern dazzle

    Northern lights are shown above a covered bridge at Wilkinson Pioneer Park in Rock Falls, Iowa, on Nov. 7, 2004. (Arian Schuessler / Mason City Globe Gazette via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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