May 14, 2024 - News

A stunning year for northern lights may be in store

A photo of the aurora borealis in the Pacific Northwest, May 10, 2024.

The northern lights above the Columbia River Gorge on May 11. Photo: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images

Seattle skywatchers who missed the chance to see the aurora borealis this past weekend need not despair; there may be other opportunities to catch the phenomenon sooner than you think.

Why it matters: 2024 is setting up to be potentially one of the best years for auroras in two decades, some experts say.

Driving the news: One super active sunspot, AR3664, has just rotated away from Earth but could create more auroras when it reappears in a few weeks, per the National Weather Service.

What's happening: The Sun is approaching the peak, or solar maximum, of its roughly 11-year cycle, when more sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are expected, Seattle-area astrophysicist Andy Silber told Axios.

  • Powerful CMEs move the auroras farther from the poles so they can be seen closer to the equator, he said.
  • But the coming maximum is generating even more excitement than usual because the last cycle, in 2014, was the weakest in a century, Mark Miesch, a research scientist at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, told National Geographic.
  • During the solar maximum, experts expect to see more frequent episodes of auroral zone growth.

Yes, but: The Sun's cycle is not fixed and it's therefore impossible to know when the maximum will arrive, said Silber.

  • The most common prediction was that it would start in 2025, but NOAA recently updated its forecast and is now saying the Sun is expected to reach its peak in 2024 — earlier, stronger and longer-lasting than initially expected.

The big picture: Moderate to strong CMEs, or bursts of solar energy, can cause geomagnetic storms on Earth and have the potential to harm satellites, impact infrastructure and disrupt communications.

A photo of the northern lights taken in Oregon in May, 2024.
People gaze at the northern lights at a lookout point in the Pacific Northwest. Photo: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images
  • But we always have at least one — and, more often, several — days to prepare, said Silber.

Fun fact: The aurora event Friday that was seen as far south as Alabama and Texas had a Kp of 9 and was billed as an extreme (G4-G5) geomagnetic storm watch — the first such alert in 19 years.

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