ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — If it seems like news of spectacular northern lights displays has become more frequent than in past years, you aren’t imagining things.
The sun, much like Earth, is alive, in the sense that it goes through natural cycles. In the case of the sun, over an 11-year period, its magnetic poles flip, from one end of the sun to the other.
“We’re right in the middle of that transition right now, we’re approaching it. When we hit the middle we call it solar maximum. It’s when we have the most sunspots, it’s when we get the most solar flares and eruptions,” said Bill Murtagh, the Program Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center.
Murtagh and many others work around the clock monitoring the sun for activity like sun spots, solar flares, and more. A division of NOAA, the Space Weather Prediction Center can issue alerts much like the weather warnings we get for severe weather. They also monitor and forecast the sun’s solar cycles, and much like our own weather, it’s not a perfect science, yet.
“We expected a kind of smaller than average cycle but we are indeed ramping up quicker, and a higher, more intense cycle is expected,” said Murtagh.
Currently, we’re in solar cycle 25, and we’ve already seen quite a few good eruptions from the increased activity from the sun. Some of which have led to recent viewings of the aurora.
“Those eruptions that occur, we call them coronal mass ejections [CME]. They’re essentially the sun shooting a magnet out into space, sometimes right towards the earth,” said Murtagh.
As that burst comes toward Earth, our own magnetic field begins to interact with that of the CME and the charged particles from the sun then get drawn to the poles and create the northern lights. The stronger the CME, the further south you can see the aurora.
“If you missed the activity a couple of weeks, last week and a few weeks ago, just know that we are ramping up to the solar maximum – we’re expecting it to occur between 2024-25 so essentially stay tuned, there’s more to come,” said Murtagh.