Increased Prevalence of the Northern Lights

Increased Prevalence of the Northern Lights

For the past few months, people living farther south have been able to witness the northern lights.

But this is no fluke - scientists say it's due to a shift in the sun's magnetic fields, which flip on an 11-year cycle. This will peak in 2025 during the phase known as solar maximum.

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, occur when solar wind or charged particles from the sun interact with the earth's magnetic field, exciting atoms in the atmosphere.

Electrons jump to a higher energy level and release light as they settle back down. Oxygen creates green or red light, while nitrogen causes blues.

Usually, auroras are seen in Scandinavian countries and Northern Canada. But in recent months, viewings have increased in areas farther south.

In February, southern England and Ireland were alight with the auroras. In March, they were visible as far south in the United States as North Carolina and New York.

In April, they were spotted in Arizona, central California, southern Ontario, and England.

Scientists are interested in the auroras because extreme geomagnetic storms, which can create the lights, can also damage power grids.

The last large outage of this sort was in 1989, leaving six million people in Quebec without power.

The current solar cycle started in 2019, and experts predict that solar maximum will be reached in 2025.

The sun's magnetic field is tied to the solar cycle, and doesn't affect its temperature. The auroral oval, or the area on earth where the lights are visible, will widen until 2025.

The best seasons to see the aurora are spring and fall, especially close to the equinoxes.

Solar terrestrial events are measured by a Kp-index, which is a scale from zero to nine. The higher the number, the more active the aurora.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates a short-term forecast with the location and intensity of auroras. and are also resources to track the light shows. AuroraMAX shows a livestream of the lights during winter months.

The Geophysical Institute run out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks provides forecasts for locations in North America, Europe, and the southern hemisphere.

Facebook communities have also formed for people in common aurora-spotting areas to discuss forecasts and to suggest viewing points.

Trips to see the aurora often involve hunting for the perfect view. Tour groups will hunt for the best view, even during solar maximum.

The aurora is different every single time, making it addictive.