Dazzling auroras were reported in the skies above Tasmania and Alaska late Monday and into early Tuesday morning, according to Spaceweather. But will the celestial fireworks continue? Currently, forecasts put out by the U. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center are calling for a 50 to 60 percent chance of continued stormy conditions to last through at least November 9.
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So if you have clear skies and you live north of 40 degrees latitude—anywhere north of the line stretching from Philadelphia to Denver, roughly speaking—it's worth a peek outside the next few nights. Sky-watchers around the Arctic Circle and the southern tip of South America will most likely see something, and those in more mid-latitude locations—like Toronto, New York, Seattle, and London—may have a fair chance as well.
Traditionally, the best time to start searching for auroras is around mid-evening, continuing late into the night your local time. When the geomagnetic storm is intense enough, the first hints of auroras painting the skies can begin soon after local nightfall. But you should expect any auroras to really kick into gear around local midnight. Watch for the first hints of a greenish glow to creep up the sky from the northern horizon for those in the Northern Hemisphere and the southern horizon for those in the Southern Hemisphere.
If it ends up being a strong display, then a larger portion of the sky can get enveloped in orange, pink, and purple curtains waving overhead. It was like looking up into the heart of a flower of glorious light whose petals rippled in a breeze that could not be felt—a breath from beyond this planet. That aurora Latin for "dawn" lit up the night at my home in the Scottish Highlands more than a decade ago, but to this day I can picture its colors, shapes, and movements. The show peaked for less than an hour, but its tonal themes lingered longer. It seemed an act of magic, but I knew that science had unveiled this magic act: Electrically charged particles from the sun were making gases glow in the upper atmosphere.
Thousands of miles away, in Alaska, the aurora also caught the attention of Charles Deehr, a physicist at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I visited Deehr in March during the current phase of intense auroral activity.
Deehr is a wiry man who retains, in his sixties, a youthful zest for new research ventures. His work in auroral forecasting mixes science and divination as he searches for patterns in the latest information sent from near-Earth satellites in hopes of predicting auroral activity a day or so in advance. Such forewarning makes it possible to prepare electrical systems on Earth and in space for disturbances.
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Scientists use satellites to gauge an aurora's power, but it was the aurora's extreme reach that demonstrated to most of us how unusual it was. People unnerved by the fiery tint in the sky phoned the police; others watched in awe.
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Within 90 seconds of the aurora's reaching the skies above Quebec, magnetic storms associated with it caused a province-wide collapse of the power grid, leaving six million Canadians without electricity for hours. At the same time, compass readings became unreliable, and there were reports of automatic garage doors opening and closing on their own. Radio transmissions and coastal navigation systems were disrupted, and information feeds from some satellites were temporarily lost. These troubles were a clear illustration of the need to predict auroras. In the Middle Ages a glowing red aurora over middle latitudes was seen by some Europeans as an omen of bloody battle or other impending doom.
The superstition may have faded, but in a time of increasing reliance on high-tech links, discovering what auroras might actually signify has taken on practical relevance and a new urgency. Charles Deehr arrived in Fairbanks with several other graduate students in physics in They were participating in the International Geophysical Year IGY , which brought together scientists from 67 countries to study Earth's surface, interior, and atmosphere.
The great red aurora of February —perhaps the most extraordinary of the century—had just occurred. This indicated explosive activity on the sun, ideal conditions for auroral research. Since the mids it has been known that the number of sunspots—dark, cooler patches of intense magnetic activity that are often accompanied by major eruptions on the solar disc—peaks roughly every 11 years. Sunspot numbers are usually high for a couple of years or so before and after the crest of this wave, known as the solar maximum. Auroras are hooked in to that roller coaster. So when the sun is restless, as it was in the late s, Earth's night skies may dance.
Deehr's group contributed to the discovery that there are two great ovals of auroral activity encircling the geomagnetic poles—one for the aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere, one for the mirroring aurora australis in the Southern. These typically bulge farther toward the Equator on Earth's night side and change shape a bit in the course of a single day.
During a big aurora they may move even farther, giving people beyond the normal limits a glimpse of the lights. The aurora of also coincided with the dawn of the space age. Our understanding of auroras comes in huge measure from linking insights gained through manned space missions to data and images from satellites, rockets, and observatories on the ground. Largely under the command of NASA, the European Space Agency, and Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, this international endeavor uses spacecraft to study the sun—including sunspot activity—and its effects on the Earth.
The ISTP missions have roughly coincided with the present solar cycle, which reached solar maximum in and is likely to produce atmospheric fireworks for the next couple of years. During my time with Charles Deehr, there had been a lull in auroral activity. Red lines spiraled from a central point like water jets from a garden sprinkler. This spray of superhot ionized gas, known as plasma, blows across interplanetary space in what is termed the solar wind. There is always auroral activity somewhere over the Earth.
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But its strength and extent vary hugely, according to what the sun has been hurling at us in preceding days. Flares that release energy bursts as powerful as millions of volcanic eruptions and coronal mass ejections that send hurricane blasts of ten billion tons of plasma into space figure more often during active parts of the solar cycle. The sun, like the Earth and most of the planets, is a huge magnet, with its own force field stretching far beyond it. This gets twisted into a spiral by the sun's rotation, and within it the solar wind particles course along magnetic field lines that channel their movements.
The eye-catching computer graphics Deehr showed me were an attempt to model the path of that energy from the sun to beyond the Earth. As they zoom toward near-Earth space, the particle streams hit the edge of our planet's own magnetic sheath—the magnetosphere.
Deflected by the magnetosphere, like water meeting a rock, the solar wind swirls past Earth and then pushes in again on the night side, squeezing the magnetosphere and elongating it into a comet-shaped tail. On the day side, the magnetosphere grows when the solar breeze is light and shrinks in a solar gale. Charged particles that get trapped in the "magnetotail," which may stretch millions of miles, can be sent hurtling back toward Earth.
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Then, in a variety of possible ways not yet fully understood, some eventually rain down into the upper atmosphere over the polar regions—the places where our protective magnetic envelope is most open to space. Auroral light comes largely from electrons hitting oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere, the same phenomenon that produces the glow in a neon lighting tube. But in the aurora the illumination can be miles I asked Deehr what my chances were for an aurora that night, my last in Fairbanks.
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He clicked a couple of keys. When we plot out what we think is going to happen, our model says we could get some increase in auroral activity later today. But my departure was not to be graced by an aurora.