Waiting for the Sky

Aurora Borealis, Alaska 2003

Midsummer may seem an odd time to be talking about the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, since it is almost never dark now in the high latitudes where the lights are most active. (Then again, now’s the perfect time in Antarctica..)

But now may be a good time to think about next winter, when aurora activity is expected to be the highest in several years. For reasons that no one can adequately explain, solar activity (the sunspots and solar storms that drive auroras) operates on an 11-year cycle. We are now on the rising curve of the last cycle that officially began with the minimum in 2008, when there were almost no sunspots, and no aurora. Peak activity should occur again in 2013 (the solar maximum), meaning that it should increase every year now for the next several. For those of us who follow these things, this is great news – frankly, it’s been a slow couple of years.

For those interested, there are some useful websites to start paying attention to:

Aurora Forecast Page

Spaceweather.com (All things Solar…)

And for some very cool pictures of the Aurora from space, go here

Where is the best place to see the Aurora?  Anywhere on the “Aurora Oval,” a donut-like ring that circles the north and south poles. Fairbanks, Alaska is on the ring, and gets more auroras than probably anywhere else in the US. Yellowknife in Canada is at a similar latitude but gets somewhat better weather. (Simply said, if there are clouds, you won’t see much) It takes a very strong solar storm to push auroras as far south as the Lower 48, but it does happen.

Meanwhile, I will be back with an update later in the season, and hope to report that 2010/2011 will be a zinger. Stay tuned.