Central Pennsylvania. Southern England. Arizona.
The northern lights are most often seen in Earth’s northernmost regions, but in recent months, they’ve been visible to populations farther south. Scientists say this is not a coincidence, but part of a trend that will allow a wider swath of the world to get a rare glimpse of this phenomenon in the next few years.
The lights will be visible farther south due to a shift in the sun’s magnetic fields, which flip on an 11-year cycle. This phenomenon will peak in 2025, during the phase known as solar maximum.
Shannon Schmoll, director of the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University, said the expanded visibility of the lights, caused by activity in the sun’s magnetic field, has already begun.
What are lights exactly?
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are created when the solar wind or charged particles from the sun interact with Earth’s magnetic field, stirring up atoms in the atmosphere.
She said the electrons jump to a higher energy level and release light – seen as the aurora borealis – when they settle down again.
Oxygen in the atmosphere produces a green or red light during the aurora borealis, while nitrogen causes the blues.
Usually, auroras are most easily seen in places like Scandinavia and northern Canada. Every winter, tourists from all over the world flock to the arctic sites, venturing into the snowy nights to discover this phenomenon.
The Northern Lights have expanded far south.
But over the past few months in the Northern Hemisphere, sightings of the lights have increased farther south.
On a cold Sunday night in February, the skies in southern England and Ireland were bright with the Northern Lights. In March, powerful geomagnetic storms helped make it 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.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the aurora borealis, or southern lights, can usually be seen from Antarctica, Australia, and southern Argentina. Their vision also expanded.
Besides creating a beautiful display, scientists are interested in auroras because intense geomagnetic storms, which can create lights, can also damage power grids, said Taylor Cameron, a research scientist with the Canadian Hazard Information Service. The last major outage of this kind was in 1989, which left six million people in Quebec without electricity.
Why are the northern lights more prevalent now?
Dr Cameron said that because the sun’s magnetic fields flip over an 11-year period, this cycle ranges from solar minimum to solar maximum. Experts predict that solar maximum will be reached in 2025, which means the auroral oval, or the region on Earth where the lights are visible, will widen until then.
“When we’re at the lowest part of the solar cycle, the sun is very quiet, basically nothing happens,” said Dr. Cameron. “And then at the maximum, we have a lot of solar flares, a lot of coronal mass ejections. The sun is much more active.”
He said the current session started in 2019.
Dr. Cameron said that the solar cycle is related to the sun’s magnetic field, but it does not affect its temperature. In contrast to the Sun’s 11-year cycle, Earth’s magnetic field reverses every tens of thousands of years.
The northern and southern hemispheres may reach solar maximum at different times, given that they can be out of sync, said C. Alex Young, associate director of science in NASA’s Heliophysical Science Division.
Dr. Young said space weather modeling, which combines real data and computer models that recreate the physics of space, allows scientists to better understand the aurora borealis.
When and where can I expect to see them?
The best seasons for viewing the Northern Lights are spring and fall, especially near the equinoxes.
“This is the same time that the equator kind of is completely flat with the plane of the sun’s rotation,” said William Archer, mission scientist at the Canadian Space Agency.
Dr Archer said solar-terrestrial events are measured by the Kp index, which is a scale from zero to nine. The higher the number, the more active the aurora borealis.
Last month’s Northern Lights episode reached an eightfold hit. For viewership in the central US, he said, Kp should be around seven or more. Darker areas away from city lights have the best visibility.
Amy Hope, managing director of Aurora Region, a UK-based Northern Lights tourism company, said trips to see the Northern Lights often involve searching for the perfect view.
In the past, she said, Maximum Solar has helped attract the attention of travelers. Since the auditory window had been enlarged, Mrs. Hope had received letters from friends in Scandinavia who had seen the lights from the kitchen windows. Even during solar maximum, tour groups will be looking for the best view.
“What’s so addictive about it – for lack of a better word – is that it’s different every time,” Ms Hope said.
I’m excited. Help me track them down!
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