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Solar storms are getting stronger and northern lights will be seen further south

Every glimmer of the northern lights – also known as aurora borealis – has its origins in a specific area on the solar surface. As a result of escalating solar activity, the upcoming year and a half are set to be replete with such celestial glimmers.

Since the end of 2022, a dramatic surge in the observation of sunspots – a pivotal metric for predicting the aurora borealis – has exceeded prior projections. This upswing has, in certain instances, expanded the observable scope of this natural light display. 

Escalation in solar storms

If it persists, scientists anticipate that the next 18 months could usher in the strongest northern lights activity of both the upcoming decade and the preceding 20 years. This amazing spectacle will be observable more frequently and from a broader array of locations worldwide and drift further south.

“Skywatchers are excited,” said Mark Miesch, a scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In 2019, the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel, a globally represented scientific assembly backed by NASA and NOAA, which predicts sunspot activities, had initially projected a below-average count of approximately 110 to 115 sunspots at its peak. 

However, revised models from various experts indicate a potential substantial escalation in solar activity.

According to the scientists, there will be a significant rise in solar activity until the autumn of 2024. It is during this period that the probability of witnessing the aurora borealis is at its pinnacle, according to Miesch.

Space weather and Northern lights

Sunspots, characterized by their darker appearance, reduced temperature, and heightened magnetic activity on the solar surface, give rise to space weather. This occurs when magnetic anomalies propel particles into the cosmos, a phenomenon known as coronal mass ejection. 

These particles traverse with the solar wind over 94 million miles before they encounter breaches in the Earth’s magnetic field, leading to collisions with the atmospheric elements and resulting in the radiant hues that fill the sky.

Extended visibility range of aurora borealis

Typically, the aurora borealis is most prominent near the Polar regions, where the Earth’s magnetic fields are relatively weaker. 

However, the increased solar activity has already extended the visibility range of the lights this year. Recent sightings have been reported as far south as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and even Arizona.

Magnetic field disturbances 

Yet, solar weather is not the sole contributing factor. According to Miesch, the spring and autumn equinoxes induce amplified disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field. 

This amplification results from the alignment of the Earth’s magnetic field to expose its most vulnerable segments towards the sun and thus granting space particles a more straightforward entry into our planet’s atmosphere.

“When there’s a big disturbance in the magnetic field, then you are more likely to see aurora at lower latitudes,” Miesch told NBC News.

As a consequence, this alignment would nearly double the chances of witnessing the northern lights in the following days.

The documentation of sunspots stands as one of the most enduring observational datasets, with records tracing back to the 17th century.

“Sunspots are our window to the past to compare current activity to what it was centuries ago,” Miesch told NBC.

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