© 2024 WXPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

“Space weather’s version of hurricane season” brings brilliant northern lights display to the Northwoods


The Northwoods has been treated to two spectacular aurora displays this year.

If you missed them, don’t worry. According to space scientists, there will be plenty more opportunities in the next couple of years.

Mark Miesch is one of a team of space scientists that work at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.

The northern lights that graced the skies over the Northwoods Sunday night were the result of a coronal mass ejection that scientists spotted leaving the sun on Friday.

“We can see from 93 million miles away, we can see when they leave the sun. We have the light from the sun. That gives us a few days warning,” said Miesch.

It hurled towards the earth at two million miles per hour before hitting the earth’s magnetic field.

It then squeezed that magnetic bubble, disrupted and disturbed it, and then caused particles, mostly electrons and protons, to come raining down interacting with molecules in the atmosphere giving us the greens and purples of the aurora borealis.

You may have noticed this is happening more frequently and with more brilliant displays.

That’s because the sun is closing in on the peak of its 11-year solar cycle.

“It’s space weather’s version of hurricane season,” said Miesch. The peak is expected in late 2024. “In the next year more of these storms to come. This is what NOAA would classify as a level four geomagnetic storm, 4 or 5s. It’s severe, not extreme. We expect four or five of them a year near cycle maximum.”

While it leads to a beautiful light display in the night sky, it can also cause problems with technology.

The disruption from the sun can impact satellites which in turn can impact things like GPS.

Miesch says it can also impact power grids.

“Any space weather event, there’s multiple kinds of space weather, but in terms of economic damage, the potential economic damage of a large solar storm on the power grid is probably the biggest. In terms of economic damage, it has the potential of being much worse than a hurricane,” he said.

Miesch says the Space Weather Prediction Center works closely with power companies to mitigate potential effects on power grids.

To see the Northern Lights directly above in our region, the geomagnetic activity needs to be fairly high.

Scientists measure it on a scale of zero to nine on the Kp scale.

The aurora on Sunday night for example was in the 7 to 8 Kp range. Lower Kp levels can sometimes be seen low on the horizon in the Northwoods.

For the best viewing, you’ll want to get away from light pollution with a clear view facing north.

Best aurora viewing is usually within an hour or two of midnight.

You can view the NOAA Aurora Forecast here.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
Up North Updates
* indicates required
Related Content