People who enjoy watching the northern lights – aurora borealis – have a new reason to celebrate.
Scientists say there should be significant aurora borealis activity and brightness this winter. What’s more, the displays may be even more active and brighter next year – and perhaps the next winter as well.
Why The Northern Lights Will Be More Active
Storms on the sun send solar winds full of dust across space. The electrically charged solar particles then enter the Earth’s atmosphere near the poles, where the magnetic fields are weakest, EarthSky explains. When these particles collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere, it creates shafts of green, pink, red, yellow, blue, and violet light. The northern lights are brightest when seen on cold, dark winter nights near Earth’s north pole.
Here’s another factor in the increasing aurora borealis activity this winter. The sun also has a magnetic field that reverses every 11 years. When that happens, the solar wind can consequently be thought of as large gusts, known as coronal mass ejections, or solar storms.
The sun’s 11-year cycle of activity has just picked up, which means coronal mass ejections will now increase, Robert Steenburgh, acting lead of the Space Weather Forecast Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says in a story on Space.com.
“There will continue to be aurora viewing opportunities in 2022,” Steenburgh said. “The solar cycle is indeed ramping up and as solar activity increases, so do the chances for Earth-directed blobs of plasma, the coronal mass ejections, which drive the geomagnetic storms and aurora.”
While the sun is reversing its magnetic field, it also gets what are known as sunspots, which are dark spots on the sun related to the areas where solar storms begin. When sunspots become more frequent, it often leads to very active and bright aurora borealis displays.
“We’re rolling back into a period when we’re starting to get a few sunspots again,” Donald Hampton, research associate professor at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, says in an Anchorage Daily News article. “We’re starting to see not only the regular aurora, but also these storms that come along and that’s what makes people excited.”
Hampton said that by 2024 or 2025, there should be aurora borealis displays every 2 to 3 days over central Alaska. Plus, because there will be more solar activity, the northern lights should be easier to view farther south.
Watching The Northern Lights
If you’re in, or plan to travel to, Alaska or northern Canada, there’s a little more to watching the northern lights than simply looking up at night.
Since the displays are tied to solar activity, the best way to plan to watch the northern lights is to monitor solar conditions. Fortunately, there are a number of websites that enable doing just that.
For example, you can keep an eye out for announcements from the Space Weather Prediction Center about incoming solar storms. Those announcements and other useful information may be found here.
It’s also possible to get an idea of how active the northern lights will be in your location by monitoring short-term aurora forecasts. You can do that by visiting the Geophysical Institute’s aurora borealis forecast here.
How To Virtually Watch The Northern Lights
If you aren’t in a location where the northern lights are easily seen, you may have put your travel plans for a “northern lights watching trip” on hold due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. If that’s the case, don’t worry, there’s still a way to watch the northern lights from the comfort of your own couch.
The Canadian Space Agency offers a live feed of the skies above Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, during the fall, winter, and spring after the sun sets from its AuroraMAX aurora borealis observatory.
The good news is that the camera turns on and the live feed begins automatically every evening as soon as the sun sets. It even features a countdown timer so you’ll know exactly when the live feed begins.
You can find the live feed from the AuroraMAX observatory here.
For more information, be sure to read all of our Northern Lights coverage, including: