Last night many saw the northern lights (aurora) for the first time. A G4 geomagnetic storm (G5 is the strongest) made an impact with the Earth’s atmosphere and the aurora borealis could be seen dancing over the Twin Cities and as far south as New Mexico. It was the strongest geomagnetic storm in six years.
What causes the aurora
Geomagnetic storms are caused when the sun ejects magnetically charged particles. The dark-colored areas on the sun are sunspots and that is where there’s magnetic activity. These spots spit out energy into space making the sun release plasma and a magnetic field in what they call a coronal mass ejection (CME). Those particles travel through space and can make an impact on the atmosphere of our planet.
When the electrons make an impact, they collide with nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The electrons slow down and release light which appears as the northern and southern lights.
How often can you see northern lights
Northern lights aren’t that uncommon. They happen often but you need to be in the right location to see them and you need to know what to look for.
Minnesota is one of the best places in the country to view them. On the many trips I’ve made up to the North Shore, I’ve come across them on a somewhat regular basis, even if they were very faint.
When you see them, they often look like light pollution that moves in the sky. The pictures on the back of the camera are never how you see them, and this is because of how the sensor on a camera collects light to expose an image properly in low light.
Even with it not being as stunning in real life, it can still be breathtaking to witness northern lights without the help of a camera. Last night was a good example of this. It was powerful enough to see in a city with bright lights and the naked eye.
How to spot them
You have to look north to see them and try to find a spot without much obstruction. A good place to view the northern lights is a public boat launch on the south end of a lake or in a field. You want to be away from light pollution. North of Duluth is a great spot to see them. The further north you go the better it’s going to be.
If you do decide to try to see them, know that they are really hit-and-miss. Sometimes everything looks perfect and it turns out to be a complete bust. Just go with the intention of enjoying time under the stars and with a spirit of adventure.
Expect to see some impressive aurora activity over the next few years. We’re approaching something called “solar maximum,” which is the time when there are the most sunspots and most solar activity in the sun’s 11-year cycle. Solar maximum is expected to be in July of 2025, according to Doug Biesecker, Ph.D., panel co-chair with the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. The closer we get to solar maximum, the stronger the geomagnetic activity.
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