Northern Lights Climax
This winter, Northern Lights Tourism has hit record levels, and well-wrapped tourists from around the world have been observed in the Northern Norwegian winter landscape gazing towards the sky. Facebook and Instagram have been glowing with the green light.
Asking the expert
Some claim however that the excitement of this amazing phenomenon is over for now as the sun is moving into a quieter phase. The solar activity experiences 11-year cycles, with a climax in the winter of 2013-14. Then it’s easy to think that Northern Norway will experience less Northern Lights the next few years. But is that true? We asked retired Northern Lights Scientist Truls Lynne Hansen at the Northern Lights Observatory in Tromsø. He was the expert that international celebrity and traveler Joanna Lumley consulted before seeing the Northern Lights in March 2008, a moment she shared with millions of viewers across the globe.
So now Northern Lights watchers can wrap up and do something else the next 11 years?
“That’s pure nonsense! It is true that we are past the Northern Lights climax. That means that there will be fewer observations around Oslo and further south. Up here under the Northern Lights oval we will not see any difference, though. Scientists in Northern Finland, close to the Norwegian border, have measured the actual eruptions over a long period of time and through many 11-year cycles and found no correlation between these cycles and what you actually see up here in the Northern Lights oval”.
So we will still see Northern Lights in Northern Norway?
“Oh, yes! Probably just as much as before. Joanna Lumleys celebrated visit in 2008 happened close to the lowest point of the cycle, and she saw a lot of Northern Lights. A solar climax means that the Northern Lights are observed on lower latitudes, even as far south as the Mediterranean. Here it can only be seen 1 or 2 times per solar maximum, and it will take 11 years for the next chance”.
Or they can go to Northern Norway…
“Haha, true. Both Northern Norway and other places along the Northern Lights belt such as Iceland, and parts of Canada and Alaska will probably see just as much Northern Lights as before”.
Northern Norway in the heart of the auroral ovals
The auroral oval knows as the Northern Lights belt, stretches along the coast of Northern Norway.
NOAA The National Space Weather Prediction Center have introduced a model that estimates where the aurora might be visible. Because the aurora is trapped on the magnetic field lines, it is most often seen near the north and south poles of Earth. Because of the structure of the magnetosphere, aurora form a ring or oval around each of the poles of Earth and are brightest and most dramatic near midnight.
Asking the sun expert
Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics, from the University of Reading, has earlier told The BBC that he thinks there is a significant chance that the sun could become increasingly quiet.
But what will this mean for the aurora?
“We cannot be absolutely certain”, Mike Lockwood start out. “But, at present aurora sits over Northern Norway in quiet times and only migrates south during solar disturbances. Incidentally auroral displays further south in disturbed times are sluggish and less dynamic than ones to the north in quieter times, so aurora to the south is not as impressive a spectacle as it is in the Arctic. If the sun goes quiet, the aurora will tend to be around the Arctic Circle”.
“So there are two competing effects. One will make substorm disturbances less common in general but the other will make the aurora reside over Northern Norway more of the time. It means people would have to travel to the north to have any chance of seeing the aurora and it’s more spectacular there anyway”, explains Lockwood.
What are the Northern Lights?
An aurora is a natural light display in the sky particularly in Arctic and Antarctic regions, caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere. "Aurora Borealis", is the international name of the northern lights.
The Northern Lights are born on the Sun. Electrically charged particles are catapulted off the surface of the Sun in the aftermath of powerful solar storms. Some of these particles travel towards Earth. When they reach the planet, they are conducted along the protective magnetic fields towards the magnetic North and South Poles. In a ring-shaped pattern around the magnetic poles, the particles encounter the upper layers of the atmosphere. In a process identical to the one that occurs inside a fluorescent light, energy is released as light that we can observe from the Earth. Most Northern Lights “displays” take place at a height of around 100 km above the Earth’s surface.