A Surge in Solar Activity Predicted to Enhance Aurora Viewing

Emily Goodheart Kautz July 22, 2019 0
A teepee illuminated in the night sky as northern lights swirl overhead.

A teepee nestled among the snowy banks of Churchill illuminates the darkness, as do the northern lights which swirl overhead.

Good news for sky gazers and northern wanderers⁠—stellar auroras are on the horizon! The Solar Cycle Prediction Panel, comprised of researchers from NASA, NOAA and the International Space Environment Service, is in agreement the next solar cycle will soon be upon us. On July 1, 2019, scientists observed a cluster of small sunspots that had bubbled up to the sun’s surface. These ephemeral dark cores portend the next solar cycle, which will mark an upswing in sunspot and solar flare activity, which are typically accompanied by more active auroras.

Solar cycles last approximately 11 years. This chart by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center shows the average number of sunspots per month across 23 full solar cycles since 1749, when daily observations began at its laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland.

The northern lights above the Boreal forest in Churchill, Canada.

© Eddy Savage

According to the National Weather Service, “Solar Cycle 24 reached its maximum—the period when the sun is most active—in April 2014 with a peak average of 82 sunspots.” For the past few years, we have been on the diminishing end of Solar Cycle 24, which has declined to its solar minimum and will likely remain there through 2020.

Now, however, the increasing pace of short-lived sunspots is an indicator that solar activity will once again be rebounding. The sunspots increase in frequency and number until solar maximum is reached, anticipated to occur between 2023 and 2026.

With more active sunspots, more solar flares occur, which are magnetic storms on the sun’s surface. These tremendously hot gaseous eruptions reach 3.6 million°F to 24 million°F and release an immense number of high-energy particles that hurtle toward Earth, creating geomagnetic storms and producing both the northern and southern lights. As the sun enters Solar Cycle 25, we are ramping up for larger, more extreme episodes of solar activity, which translates to a bigger, brighter aurora over the next five to six years.

The northern lights in Churchill, Canada.

© Alexander de Vries

The northern lights over Churchill are always a thrilling sight, since it lies directly beneath the auroral oval. But as we anticipate Solar Cycle 25, we can look forward to even more spectacular auroral displays ahead in other northern locations as well. Journey with us to experience the Northern Lights & Arctic Cultures of Churchill.

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