British Columbians can expect to see more Northern Lights in the next three years


British Columbians can expect to see more Northern Lights dancing across the sky over the next three years.

Bill Murtagh, a space weather forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US, said more displays of the aurora borealis will be visible before solar maximum in 2025.

A solar maximum, which occurs approximately every 11 years, is when the sun is at its most active and has the most sunspots, leading to more solar flares.

The aurora borealis and its southern equivalent, the aurora australis, are geomagnetic storms caused by the collisions of gaseous particles in the earth’s atmosphere and electrically charged particles emitted by the sun.

The Northern Lights are caused by particles blown out by the sun, colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The Northern Lights come in different colors due to variations in gaseous particles and their altitudes.

The most common color, a pale green, is caused by oxygen molecules about 97 kilometers above the earth, while the less common red auroras are the result of oxygen about 322 kilometers above the earth. above ground. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red auroras.

Staff at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado monitor solar activity. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/YouTube)

Murtagh spoke to host Chris Walker on CBC South Dawn on what’s behind increased Northern Lights displays, their effects on Earth, and working in space weather.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.


What’s behind this increase in Northern Lights over the next three years?

We are going to see more and more solar activity. When the poles of the sun are established and things are calm, we go through what is called a [solar] minimum and we see very few sunspots. But now we see a lot of sunspots. Even this very week we will see quite a few solar flares.

The more sunspots we see, the more likely flares there are and, therefore, the higher the likelihood of the Northern Lights.

What causes these sunspots in the first place?

When these sunspots emerge, they are only visible manifestations where the magnetic fields are really called upon. It’s like taking the rubber band and twisting it, and eventually it breaks. These sunspots show us where these magnetic fields are really twisted and stretched.

WATCH | What causes the Northern Lights?

Do these magnet eruptions have other effects on Earth than the aurora borealis? Can they affect electronics or even pose a risk to Earth?

At the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, we warn satellite companies, power grids, GPS operators, GPS communications system users, and aviators who fly, especially in the high latitudes over Canada and poles. All of these technologies can be significantly affected by space weather.

When we have a big space weather event, we notify all the major airlines, and they start diverting flights from the polar regions. More importantly, we are advising owners and operators of power systems in Canada and the United States, so that they know that this magnetic storm is going to happen.

This will induce unwanted current into your network and can cause big problems, so they need to take steps to protect their critical assets.

What an exciting job you do! How do we work in space weather?

We have varied profiles: we have solar physicists, ionospheric physicists, geomagnetic scientists, statisticians, mathematicians and astrophysicists.

Obviously we’re working with a big space, 93 million miles, and there’s a lot of realms out there, so we have a lot of different scientists working together to understand and better predict what’s going to happen in those particular realms.