Spring has now arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. So, besides the warmer temperatures that are, in time, sure to come, astronomers have another reason to look forward to the new season: the Northern Lights.
For reasons scientists still no not fully understand, spring and fall tend to have more displays of aurora (Northern/Southern Lights) than the other two seasons. Current theory holds that the orientation of Earth toward the Sun at these points in time is what makes aurora more likely at this time of year. So, with spring having just arrived, aurora season can be considered to be in full swing.
The aurora are caused when the energized particles from the Sun come into contact with Earth’s upper atmosphere. When the charged energy hits Earth, the particles react and the atoms/molecules in Earth’s upper atmosphere give off the photons we see as the Northern Lights. Why are the lights different colors? Each individual atom gives off a different glowwhen excited by the incoming solar wind. For us living in the Northern hemisphere, auroras are common in high latitudes such as Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and higher. For those at mid latitudes, such as Cleveland’s 41 degrees North, auroras don’t find their way into our skies very often
However, there are always exceptions.
Right now, the Sun is headed for solar maximum, the peak in activity in its 11-year cycle. Because blasts of energy from the Sun are sure to become more powerful and frequent in the future, the chances of aurora working their way down to a Cleveland-like mid-Northern latitude become more likely. In May, 2005, I saw a stunning display of auroras that ranged from blue-violet overhead to green curtains near the horizon. Needless to say, they were spectacular.
So how about now?
Unfortunately, predicting aurora, and more specifically, where exactly they will appear, is very much a guessing game. However, to help one’s odds of seeing the Northern Lights, sigh up for Spaceweather’s phone alert system, which can be set to call you when aurora are predicted to be visible over your location. Of course, always be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecastand, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock. Live somewhere else? Find a clockand see if it will be clear near you.
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Featured sight for week of 3/20: Mercury at its best
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