Have you ever seen the Northern Lights? Solar Cycle 25 offers WNY’s best chance in years


ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Whether you’ve seen them in person or simply through pictures, most everyone is familiar with the Northern Lights, aka the aurora borealis.

The distinctive (often) green glow has captivated people throughout history, and people to this day travel great distances to attempt to see it first hand. Here in WNY, we live at a latitude that often precludes regular aurora sightings.

But we live far enough north to tap into the occasional display, and when they occur they can be breathtaking. I’ve rounded up a few photos from Twitter below…

Here’s the catch- there hasn’t been much to see over the last few years. The reasoning is best explained by taking a step back and looking at how & why auroras form in the first place. Planet Earth relies on a supplier of energy in order to manufacture our auroras. We outsource this supply of energy to the same place we get our daylight and warmth- the Sun.

It’s a high efficiency producer of the sort of energy we need to make those glowing lights happen. At any given moment, the Sun is a crackling source of plasma and energy. When viewed from a wide angle lens, this energy output is fairly uniform. It’s reliable. It’s relatively predictable. But focus that lens a little closer and that bubbling cauldron of energy is rather chaotic, at times spewing seemingly random burps of hot gasses into space.

This is where things get interesting.

Our Sun is often littered with freckles, concentrated regions of imperfections that can boil over, sending a highly powerful but localized eruption of energy into space. We call these areas sunspots.

You can’t (and shouldn’t try to) see them with the naked eye, but proper telescopes show our Sun’s marbled complexion with clarity. Sometimes there are many sunspots. Sometimes just a few. Sometimes none. When these sunspots erupt, Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s) fly away from the Sun with a vector in line with the trajectory of the eruption.

Many times, these eruptions are nowhere near Earth with only astronomers aware anything happened. Sometimes, their path crosses ours. When that delivery hits our mailbox, the party starts. When this energy strikes our ionosphere, it combines with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen to release a colorful glow in our skies above. These colors, by the way, vary based on the atoms & altitude. While often green, there are many hues that have been observed.

Earth’s magnetic field is sort of like a protective shield. Without it, these CME’s would destroy our atmosphere, creating a less than ideal circumstance we’d just assume avoid. When these bursts of energy arrive, they get concentrated toward the Earth’s geomagnetic poles. This is why you often hear of auroras being common at higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere.

We’re talking Canada, Alaska, places like that. Particularly strong injections of energy can allow these auroral ovals to drop south in latitude, spilling into the United States. That’s where WNY gets involved. That’s the short story on how and why these glowing lights happen in the first place.

Now that you’re up to speed, there’s an important variable to consider. These sunspots, the culprits to our light show, are not uniform. Through time and study, we’ve discovered these sunspots wax and wane in cycles. Like a wave, there are solar minimums and solar maximums. As you might assume, solar minimums coincide with little to no sunspot activity. Auroras are infrequent during these times. Solar maximums have lots of juicy sunspots just waiting to help put on a show. These cycles occur roughly every 11 years in line with the Sun’s magnetic field flipping.

We’ve been coming off of a particularly quiet solar minimum that dipped through December 2019. It’s no coincidence these last few years have been awfully quiet on the aurora front. Solar Cycle 25 is now ramping up, set to peak in 2025. As the weeks and months tick on by, sunspot activity will gradually increase from here. We’ve noticed a big increase in activity over the last month with at least a pair of CME’s that allowed auroras to spill into the United States. As we climb the hill further, it is logical to assume this activity will further increase.

There are mixed predictions on how “intense” Solar Cycle 25 will ultimately be. To some extent, it doesn’t matter. Our approach toward Solar Maximum implies our quiet stretch in terms of local activity should be coming to an end. As the Sun gets peppered with more and more sunspots, there will be more and more CME’s and opportunities for our planet to start mass producing auroras again. The focus of this article obviously centers around the “positives” with increased auroras, but there are certainly unsavory implications too.

Skywatchers who have been patient in recent years should get back in the habit of regularly checking the Sun’s current state of affairs. While impacts from CME’s are not yet a perfect science, there is most certainly an element of predictability that offers people lead time toward an approaching solar storm. Our northerly latitude will continue to make WNY an intriguing place to view the Northern Lights when such events transpire, and I’ll be right there with you looking up.

Chief Meteorologist Eric Snitil

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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