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Aurora borealis? At this time of year, at this time of day, localized entirely within B.C.? Yes.

British Columbians can expect to see more northern lights dancing in the skies over the next three years.

Bill Murtagh, a space weather forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S., says more displays of the aurora borealis will be visible before the solar maximum in 2025.

A solar maximum, which happens about every 11 years, is when the sun is at its most active state and has the most sunspots, resulting in more solar eruptions. 

The aurora borealis, and its southern equivalent the aurora australis, are geomagnetic storms caused by the collisions of gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere and electrically charged particles released from the sun.

aurora borealis at this time of year at this time of day localized entirely within b c yes
The aurora borealis are caused by particles blasted out from the sun, colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The northern lights come in different colours due to variations in the gaseous particles and their altitudes.

The most common colour, a pale green, is caused by oxygen molecules located about 97 kilometres above the earth, while the less common red auroras are the result of oxygen around 322 kilometres above the ground. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish red auroras.

aurora borealis at this time of year at this time of day localized entirely within b c yes 1
Staff at the Space Weather Prediction Centre in NOAA, Boulder, Colo., monitor solar activities. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/YouTube)

Murtagh spoke to host Chris Walker on CBC’s Daybreak South about what’s behind the increased displays of the aurora borealis, their effects on Earth, and working in space weather.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.


What’s behind this increase in aurora borealis over the next three years? 

We’re going to see more and more sunspot activity. When the sun’s poles are established and things are quiet, we go through what’s called a [solar] minimum and we see very few sunspots. But now we’re seeing lots of sunspots. Even in this very week, we’ll see quite a few eruptions on the sun. 

The more sunspots we see, the more eruptions that are likely, and consequently the higher the probability for the northern lights. 

What causes these sunspots in the first place? 

When these sunspots emerge, they’re just visible manifestations where the magnetic fields are really stressed. It’s like taking the rubber band and twisting it, and finally it snaps. These sunspots are showing us where those magnetic fields are really twisted and stretched.

WATCH | What causes the northern lights?

Do these eruptions of magnets have effects on Earth other than the northern lights? Can they affect electronics or even pose any risk to Earth? 

In the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., we warn satellite companies, electric power grids, GPS operators, users of GPS communication systems, and aviators that are flying, especially in the high latitudes over Canada and the poles. All these technologies can be affected significantly by space weather. 

When we have a big space weather event, we advise all the major airlines, and they start rerouting flights away from the polar regions. Most critically, we’re advising the electric power grid owners and operators across Canada and the United States, so that they know that this magnetic storm is going to happen. 

It’s going to induce unwanted current into your grid and may cause big problems, so they have to take action to protect their critical assets.

What a fascinating job you have! How does one work in space weather?

We have a variety of backgrounds: we have solar physicists, ionospheric physicists, geomagnetic scientists, statisticians, mathematicians and astrophysicists. 

Obviously, we’re working with a big space, 93 million miles, and there’s a lot of domains out there, so we’ve got a lot of different scientists working together to understand and better predict what’s going to happen in those particular domains.




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