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Catch the Northern Lights: A Solar Spectacle

Canadians who missed the recent stunning displays of the northern lights across the country, and even as far south as Florida, may still have a chance in the coming weeks. According to Dr. Robyn Fiori from the Canadian Hazards Information Service at Natural Resources Canada, "Right now we're in a period of solar maximum."


 Silhouette of a photographer taking pictures of northern lights near Lumsden, Saskatchewan
Capturing the Beauty: Photographer Silhouette and Northern Lights near Lumsden, Saskatchewan

The sun operates on an 11-year cycle known as the solar cycle, and we're currently experiencing a phase of increased solar activity. "This will be a two or three year period where we’re going to see a lot of solar activity, a lot of X-ray flares, and a lot of CMEs," Dr. Fiori explained.


CMEs, or coronal mass ejections, are bursts of plasma from the sun's corona that travel outward at speeds ranging from a couple of hundred to several thousand kilometers per second. When these CMEs interact with Earth's magnetic field, they can cause spectacular auroras, also known as the aurora borealis.


However, there's a catch. For the interaction to occur and for us to see the northern lights, the CME must actually hit the Earth. If the eruption occurs on the edge of the sun and is not facing our planet, it will miss us entirely.


Woman holding a phone, looking up at northern lights near Lumsden, Saskatchewan
Capturing the Moment: Woman Watching Northern Lights near Lumsden, Saskatchewan

Dr. Fiori noted a significant solar flare recently, designated X-3 in strength. Solar flares are ranked A, B, C, M, and X, with X being the most intense. This particular flare came from an active region of the sun that is just rotating onto the visible side. If associated with a CME, it wouldn't be directed towards Earth.


Since the sun rotates on its axis every 27 days, once an active area turns away from Earth, it won’t be facing us again for almost another month. This rotation could bring new active regions into alignment with our planet.


Tracking CMEs is relatively straightforward as scientists can observe them erupt and estimate their speed. However, predicting their impact on auroras is more complex.


Dr. Fiori explained, "We need more information than just speed to determine how well a CME will interact with our magnetic field. The more it interconnects, the stronger the auroral response."


 Silhouette of a church with northern lights in the night sky near Lumsden, Saskatchewan
Illuminated Sanctuary: Church Silhouette and Northern Lights near Lumsden, Saskatchewan

She added that satellites stationed at the Lagrange point L1, located a few million kilometers from Earth, provide critical data as CMEs pass by. This data helps scientists predict the impact on Earth's magnetic field.


Despite the unpredictability, the length of the solar cycle means there are ample opportunities ahead. The solar maximum is expected to peak next year and has already shown more robust activity than the previous cycle.


Dr. Fiori also cautioned about potential impacts on technology such as radio communications and global positioning systems. On an individual level, there’s nothing specific you need to do for space weather, but staying informed can heighten your chances of witnessing the northern lights, especially during major geomagnetic storm watches.


For the latest updates on space weather, including current geomagnetic activity and storm warnings, visit Space Weather Canada.




 

Dre Erwin, a former Canadian Armed Forces member and dedicated nurse, is an inspirational figure in mental health support. His passion for therapeutic photography and youth well-being has earned widespread recognition. Dre authored the bestselling children's book 'The Little Boy Who Found Happiness in the Most Unusual Place' and was featured in the CBC documentary 'A New Lens on Life' for his innovative approach to mental health challenges. His story inspires nurses and healthcare providers to think creatively and make a positive impact in their practice.


Stay connected with us on Facebook for additional tips and tricks: Follow Dre Erwin Photography at https://www.facebook.com/DreErwinPhotography.

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