Holes in Earth’s Magnetic Field Make March Great for Northern Lights

0 14

This could be the best month, of the best year for two decades, to see the Northern Lights, in part, thanks to openings in Earth’s magnetic field.

The aurora borealis, commonly called the Northern Lights, are the stunning ribbons of shimmering green, pink, purple, and red that dance in the skies of the Arctic.


A picture from Riverton's national weather service in Wyoming shows purple and green northern lights shining behind a spherical structure in the foreground.

The northern lights dance in the skies above Riverton, Wyoming.

NWS Riverton



If you’re lucky and you plan right, you might be able to see the Northern Lights this month. This all applies to the aurora australis (the Southern Lights) as well, in places like Australia and New Zealand.

Why the sun and holes in our magnetic field make good auroras now

The Northern Lights occur when charged particles and magnetic fields flowing out of the sun, called the solar wind, wash over Earth.


Solar Wind

An animation of the solar wind shows particles streaming from the sun towards Earth.


NASA



Our planet’s magnetic field channels the solar wind toward the poles, where the charged solar particles interact with molecules in the atmosphere to make the colorful aurora.


aurora southern lights earth atmosphere international space station iss

The Aurora Australis, or southern lights, as seen from the International Space Station.


NASA



Both steps of that process are ramped up right now.

For one, the sun is near the peak of its solar cycle. Powerful eruptions, solar flares, and bursts of solar wind from coronal holes in the sun’s atmosphere are becoming more common, sending more winds rushing over our planet.


coronal hole

A coronal hole rotates across the face of the sun, streaming solar wind towards Earth.


NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory



Secondly, once those winds reach Earth, spring and fall are the best times for them to produce a spectacular aurora. Scientists think that’s because of the equinoxes.

The equinox happens when Earth’s axis is perpendicular to the sun’s rays. That causes a special alignment where our planet’s magnetic field points in precisely the opposite direction of many of the solar wind’s magnetic fields.

This alignment causes the Earth and sun’s magnetic fields to merge. The process, called magnetic reconnection, creates openings in Earth’s magnetic field that allow the solar wind to transfer energy to our atmosphere, and potentially cause more aurora.


spring equinox sunlight earth axis tilt bi graphics

An illustration of the spring equinox.

Shayanne Gal/Business Insider



Though he doesn’t like the analogy, Matt Owens, a professor of space physics at the University of Reading, told Business Insider in an email that “the reconnection process could be very loosely described as making holes or cracks in the magnetosphere.”

The below NASA visualization shows what our magnetic field looks like around the equinox.

Specifically, March was the most active month for auroras in a NASA study of 75 years of data. October was a close second, then April, then September.

March 2023 saw the biggest aurora event of that year, for example. At the end of the month, a series of solar activities triggered auroras so powerful that they appeared across the US, as far south as Phoenix, Arizona.

It happened quickly, though, and most people missed it.

How to see and photograph the aurora


A man in heavy clothing takes pictures of the southern lights.

A photographer takes pictures of the aurora australis, also known as the southern lights, on the outskirts of Christchurch, New Zealand.

SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP via Getty Images



First, check the aurora forecast on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. If things are happening on the sun, this can change day-to-day.

When the northern lights come to lower latitudes, including most of the US, they can be fainter than they appear in photos from Alaska or Norway.

Instead of this…


ribbons of green pink purple northern lights stretch across the night sky above homes and lights of a sprawling town

Northern Lights, also called aurora borealis, dance in the sky over Tromso, Norway.

NTB/Rune Stoltz Bertinussen/Reuters



… you might be looking for something like this:


The lights are seen floating above the National Weather Service office.

Northern lights could be seen above the National Weather service office in Gaylor, Missouri.

NWS Gaylor



So if you live in a city, do your best to leave it. Find a safe spot with clear, dark skies far from city lights.

Prepare for cold weather with blankets and hot beverages. You may have used your phone or looked at screens to get you where you need to go, so be patient, and let your eyes adjust to the darkness.

If you can’t leave the city, do your best to block out its light pollution. Go to a nearby nature reserve, or the top of a hill, and try to keep the city lights out of your gaze.

Look for anything colorful and out of the ordinary. There are several different types of aurora.

You can try to snap pictures of the auroras with a camera, but make sure not to transfer it too quickly from a hot to a cold environment to avoid condensation, according to the Royal Photographic Society.

Preset your camera before leaving a warmer space so your fingers don’t get too cold — higher aperture may be better, but you may have to adjust your settings if the aurora is moving quickly. You can find information on how to set SLR cameras here.

This could be your best chance for another decade


The tornado is shown here on the surface of the sun.

A tornado-like plasma filament appears near the north pole of the sun.

SDO/NASA



The sun could reach solar maximum this year or next year. That happens when our star’s poles flip, causing havoc in its magnetic fields and peak solar activity.

That’s why in the past year, we’ve seen a plasma vortex swirling like a whirlpool around the solar pole, a massive coronal “hole” in our sun, and a solar “tornado” the size of 14 Earths.

It’s been about a decade since the last solar maximum, and when it’s over the sun’s activity will die down and it will be another 11 years until the next one.

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.