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How the Sun Causes the Northern Lights

Posted By Jo Baldwin on 14/08/2013

 

The winter of 2012/13 was to be a period of unusually high Northern Lights activity.  And what’s more, the winter of 2013/14 is set to follow suit, according to NASA scientists!Picture

 

Science Questions Answered

To better understand the science behind the beauty of the Northern Lights I’ve gone in search of some answers to the frequently asked question: ‘When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?’ 

It helps to imagine the sun as having a heartbeat, which every ten to eleven years beats unusually hard.  This ‘solar cycle’ is measured using the number of sunspots visible. In very simple terms an increase in sunspots equals an increase in solar flares, which equals more energy released into space and hey presto, more Aurora Borealis activity!  NASA recently released some fantastic footage of a coronal mass ejection - an eruption taking place on the surface of the sun, which will take 12-40 hours to reach earth and be visible in the sky as Northern Lights.

 

Understanding the Sunspot Cycle

Since Galileo’s time 400 years ago, scientists have been recording the number and intensity of sunspots, giving us reliable data on which to base future Northern Lights forecasts.  The Northern Lights become more active and intense around the peak of a sunspot cycle, and in the three to four years immediately following the peak.  NASA has a webpage which charts and predicts sunspot cycles. 

This shows that 2013/14 will see more sunspot peaking- great news for those planning an arctic trip for this year.  It was initially thought that after intense sunspot activity over 2012/13 that conditions would calm this year leading to a quieter period for the Northern Lights. However, Dean Pesnell, a leading member of the NASA Solar Cycle Prediction Panel, commented on an official NASA video recently that: 'This is solar maximum, but it looks different than we expected because it is double peaked.'

 

Peak Northern Lights Activity Period

We are now entering a phase of the sunspot activity which means that sighting of the Northern Lights will be on the rise.  After a period of deep solar minimum activity the next few years will see an increase in aurora activity and could be one of the best times to see the Aurora Borealis in this decade. 

Transun have complied a table showing data collected from previous clients who’ve travelled with us to Lapland- just go to the ‘climate’ tab.  The figures show the percentage of people who answered yes to seeing the Northern Lights on our customer service questionnaire and gives you some idea of the feedback we’ve had from first-hand experience. 

There are several organizations that monitor the sun, measure solar winds and make aurora predictions based on real-time observations.  You can even check ‘today’s space weather’.   School pupils on on Shetland, Orkney and Mull have recently been sent a device called a magnetometer to monitor Northern lights activity in the UK.  The data they collect will be linked to a system that alerts the public to when the Northern Lights can be seen.  If you fancy building your very own magnetometer check out the simple instructions here. 

 

Want to Get Technical?

If you want to get really technical, it’s worth investigating a ‘space weather forecast’ before you travel to the Arctic Circle, which gives you the predicted Kp number for the dates you’re travelling on. The official planetary Kp index is derived by calculating a weighted average of K-indices from a network of geomagnetic observatories.  In simple terms, the higher the Kp index, the more likely you are to see the Lights. 

It is strange to me how scientific the explanation behind a phenomenon so other-worldly and breathtakingly beautiful is.  With a Northern Lights experience , it is easy to forget the astrophysics, number crunching, graphs, magnetometers, tables and telescopes that explain what can only be described as the most memorable event you will ever see.   

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Northern lights
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