ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Through February, March, and April earlier this year if you were willing to stay up late and in some cases bear the cold you were treated to one of nature’s most amazing phenomena, the northern lights.
Now as Solar Cycle 25 nears its peak, our chances of seeing the spectacle continue to rise into the winter months and this is predicted to be the most active in decades according to Dr. Dean Pensell from NASA.
“We’ve been below average for the last three cycles,” said Dr. Pensell “This time it appears it has headed back up and we see increased activity over the next few solar cycles. So we’re not even average yet. This cycle is nowhere close to average. It’s still below average, but it is heading in the right direction for having an average cycle in cycle 26 or 27.”
How active a solar cycle is, is determined by the number of sunspots on the sun. To an observer from the earth’s perspective, they look like small black dots. In reality, they’re intense areas of activity on the sun’s surface that spew out tons of heat and energized particles.
“The more sunspots there are, that means that there are more filaments, which are these big towering arches of material that are suspended above the surface, and those regions tend to have more flares. And they also tend to have these coronal mass ejections where one of those filaments is thrown off of the sun,” said Dr. Pensell
While the flares mentioned can sometimes cause the aurora, to get a long-lasting show in the northern sky you want to see a Coronal Mass Ejection also known as a CME.
“When these coronal mass ejections take one of these filaments and pull that off of the surface of the sun and throw that into space as it goes by, the magnetic field that’s there interacts with our magnetic field and can cause long-lasting aurora,” said Dr. Pensell
The scale and speed of these eruptions from the sun are hard to wrap your head around too. Remember you can fit over a million Earths inside of the Sun, so when even a small piece of the Sun breaks off it is still many many times the size of our little planet.
“So if you think about how long it would take you to drive from Rochester to New York City 500 kilometers a CME, whatever, that is, you know, it’s probably so it’s probably seven hours, six hours or so. The CME moves that in one second, so it’s sweeping through the Solar System at about 1000 kilometers a second,” said Dr. Pensell.
With an increasing amount of sunspots the chance of a coronal mass ejection, or even a flare headed towards earth is higher than normal at the peak of the solar cycle. Combined with our longer nights the window for these to arrive and kick the aurora up is that much greater.
It’s also important to remember as well that while the auroras that result from these events are pretty, these space weather events if they’re sufficiently large, can cause issues. Namely with radio, GPS, satellites, and on the electrical grid as well. This is one of the many, and more important reasons, these events are tracked on a daily basis versus just whether or not the aurora will be visible.