Predicting and Tracking the Aurora Borealis
A solar cycle is traditionally measured by the rise and fall in the number of sunspots, but it also coincides with increases in solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), radio emissions, and other forms of space weather. These bursts of magnetized plasma and energetic waves from the Sun’s atmosphere can energize the gases and particles in Earth’s magnetosphere. Those particles are sent crashing into Earth’s upper atmosphere at altitudes of 100 to 400 kilometers (60 to 250 miles), where they excite oxygen and nitrogen molecules and release photons. The results are rays, sheets, and curtains of dancing light in the sky.
According to the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, the Sun erupted with two CMEs on February 25 and 26, including one associated with an M6.2 solar flare. The biggest flares are known as “X-class” based on a classification system that divides solar flares according to their strength. The smallest ones are A-class (near background levels), followed by B, C, M and X. Similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output. In this case, geomagnetic storm activity reached G3 on a scale from G1 to G5.
If you like watching aurora displays such as this one, you can participate in aurora citizen science through a project called Aurorasaurus. The project tracks auroras around the world via reports to its website and on Twitter, then generates a real-time global map of those reports. Citizen scientists verify the tweets and reports, and each verified sighting serves as a valuable data point for scientists to analyze and incorporate into space weather models. The project is a public-private partnership with the New Mexico Consortium and is supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA.
Forecasts from space weather experts indicate the next peak of solar activity (solar maximum) will likely be reached in mid-2025.
Article by Adam Voiland.
See entire NASA Earth Observatory article at A Dazzling Aurora Borealis.