Sunday, 14 September 2014

Science Saturday - See The Northern Lights

As a matter of fact ...

I've just got back from a trip to northern Ontario. We shot bows, fished and drank beers beneath the stars - lots of fun. One thing we did miss out on though was the expected appearance of the Aurora Borealis otherwise known as the northern lights. Pretty gutted to be honest. I'm jealous of anyone who has seen the spectacle in their life. If you don't know what they are, check this picture out. Unfortunately, the night was just too cloudy and the lights just not strong enough to see. Still, it didn't stop me wondering what causes the phenomenon. Where do these northern lights come from?

The picture above was taken in Kanata, not too far from Toronto. The northern lights are rarely seen this far south. Normally, the solar winds that hit the Earth's magnetosphere are not strong enough to cause the light display. However, when a 'geomagnetic storm' occurs, the strength and therefore the visibility of the lights extends the auroral zone/to lower lattittudes such as Toronto. 

Above is a nice little image showing how the Sun's solar winds interact with the Earth's magnetosphere. You can see how the Van Allen belts deflect most of them away towards the Earth's poles. This is why their interaction with the particles in our atmosphere are seen most predominantly the closer you are to the poles.

Unfortunately, it doesnt matter how strong they are if you have a cloudy night like we did. Fortunately, the solar flares are somewhat predictable, so if you live anywhere considered quite north or south, keep your eyes peeled for reports of them coming in! The Aurora Boreali are quite a sight to see!

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