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Northern Lights illuminate skies farther south than usual this week

8 months 2 weeks 3 days ago Wednesday, October 13 2021 Oct 13, 2021 October 13, 2021 5:07 AM October 13, 2021 in News
Source: CNN
The northern lights above Kirkjufell mountain in Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Photo: National Geographic

This week more people in the U.S. will be able to see the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis.

According to CNN, this expansion of one of nature's most dazzling spectacles was made possible when a flare of solar energy hit Earth a few days ago and caused a geomagnetic storm that resulted in the Northern Lights illuminating skies at lower latitudes than usual.

Geomagnetic storms are defined as disturbances of Earth’s upper atmosphere caused by solar flares. During these instances, protons and electrons with high energy, which are collectively referred to as 'plasma,' quickly make their way to Earth.

Their terrestrial landing is made in 21 hours, and as they arrive the plasma increases the geomagnetic field of the planet’s surface. Plasma deflected to Earth's dark side is what triggers auroral displays at poles.

So, thanks to the geomagnetic storm, skywatchers in Scotland, the north of England, and as far south as New York, Wisconsin and Washington state will be able to see the auroras.

Visibility is expected to continue through Wednesday, based on calculations from the United Kingdom's Met Office, which said there could be a "rather active period of geomagnetic activity."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center refers to this geomagnetic storm as "moderate," calling it a "G2" event on its 1 to 5 scale.

The US agency also noted that the storm's impact would be felt above 55 degrees latitude, and that it may cause power grid fluctuations.

According to NASA, the Northern Lights are caused by collisions between fast-moving particles (electrons) from space and the oxygen and nitrogen gas in our atmosphere.

These electrons originate in the magnetosphere and as they rain into the atmosphere, the electrons put the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in an excited state by supplying them with energy.

When the molecules return to their normal state, they release photons, which are small bursts of energy in the form of light, resulting in the Northern Lights.

While the aurora borealis offers spectators a colorful light show, the space weather that causes it is important to monitor because it can also affect our power grids, satellites, GPS, airlines, rockets and even the astronauts who are working in space.

Experts said that this week a fast wind from a coronal hole may arrive, which makes for a fairly active period of geomagnetic activity.

NASA describes coronal holes as regions on the Sun where its magnetic field is open to interplanetary space, sending solar material speeding out in a high-speed stream of solar wind.

Scientists say the Sun is becoming more active. It began a new 11-year solar cycle in 2019, and the current cycle's solar maximum, which is when activity peaks, is expected to occur in mid-2025.

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