The sighting of the Northern Lights in northern Colorado two weeks ago may be a mere glimpse of what’s in store in the coming months, judging by “space weather” predictions generated in Boulder that anticipate increasing solar storm activity through 2024.
The magnetic field of the sun reverses polarity every 11 years, meaning its magnetic north and south poles flip. Sun spots, solar flares, and the Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) that cause the Northern Lights reach peak levels midway through the cycle, which is predicted to occur in late 2024 or early 2025.
That means the likelihood of more opportunities to see the Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, is strong. They occur when the charged particles ejected by the sun are deflected to earth’s north and south magnetic poles, creating colorful lights when they interact with earth’s atmosphere. The Southern Lights, seen in the southern hemisphere, are called the aurora australis.
The aurora borealis is more commonly seen in far northern latitudes, but when there are strong CMEs, it is sometimes observable in northern Colorado, as was the case two weeks ago.
“What we’re observing now is quite a bit higher than predicted, especially in the last couple of months,” said Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder. “It (solar activity) is higher and rising faster than expected. With the increase in sun spots, we are going to see more eruptions. We saw a lot of that in the past couple of months, and it will continue.
“We will see more space weather, more magnetic storms and more aurora sightings with the larger sun spot cycle,” he added.
The Space Weather Prediction Center’s mission is to monitor solar activity and warn sensitive industries that can be impacted by CMEs, which can damage power grids, disrupt communication and navigation systems, interfere with radio transmissions and disturb GPS systems.
The same CME that caused the Northern Lights to appear in Northern Colorado two weeks ago forced SpaceX to postpone a Starlink launch from the Kennedy Space Center that was supposed to deliver satellites into space. In 2022, a Starlink launch during a geomagnetic storm prevented most of the satellites it was carrying to reach orbit, and they burned up on reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.
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“They learned a lesson,” Murtagh said. “Now they’re watching things carefully. They’re launching quite frequently, as are other mega constellation (satellite) groups. They all appreciate that we’re seeing more activity, so they have to keep a close eye on it all the time. Just like the aurora, the more activity we see, the more impacts or effects we’re going to feel.”
While sightings of the aurora borealis aren’t the focus of the center’s work, scientists there can get just as excited about it as the public when it occurs.
“Seeing the aurora seems to be on everybody’s bucket list, and that’s certainly the case for all the folks here at the Space Weather Prediction Center,” Murtagh said. “There’s not too many visible manifestations of space weather. The one visible piece happens to be one of the most beautiful spectacles in nature, the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights. We watch the sun, we monitor the sun spots, we predict the flare potential, we see the CME, we talk about what it’s going to hit the earth and the big magnetic disturbance.
“Isn’t it nice to be able to finish that story with a beautiful picture of the aurora? We love the majesty of the lights,” he said.
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