Increased solar activity leads to more aurora chances

Published: Mar. 8, 2021 at 6:02 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - If it feels like there have been more chances to see the aurora lately, it’s not your imagination. Part of that has to do with clear skies during February and March that made it possible to see the aurora but also, aurora activity is getting stronger and more frequent.

“It’s definitely more active at least this year than it has in the last two or three years,” said Donald Hampton, research associate professor with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “We’ve been in the solar minimum since about 2018, 2019, so it’s been a very quiet couple of years in terms of aurora. We are starting to roll back out of that, so the number of sunspots is starting to tick up a little bit, the activity on the sun is actually starting to increase again.”

The sun, which is the source of the aurora we see in the night sky, goes through a cycle of more and less active. The cycle lasts about 11 years. As we move away from the solar minimum in December 2019, we are seeing more active aurora.

“Everything starts with the sun with aurora,” Hampton said. “The sun’s hot — we all know that — and like a morning cup of tea when you put it in the morning sun on the table, you see a little bit of steam coming off it so there’s always this stream of charged particles that can escape from the sun and they’re always coming out.”

As the solar wind has increased, the forecasts for the aurora have started showing more frequent fours and fives, on a scale of zero to nine. The bigger auroras that would produce a nine are rare but more likely to happen near the solar maximum. The last time Hampton remembers seeing a nine was back in 1989.

“We’ll see more of the bigger storms as well, but you just don’t see those as often,” Hampton said. “But we’ll see a lot more of this four and five, just more frequently. It will happen a couple of times a week versus an every other month kind of thing. It all builds up overall and we’ll just see a lot more activity.”

And while many of us think of aurora as a nighttime phenomenon, aurora occurs all the time.

“In summertime and when the sun is out, there’s aurora happening. It just has to be so dark for you to see the really bright aurora,” Hampton said.

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