Tuesday’s Aurora, But Not For Me

Aurora_Borealis_PosterWhen it comes to Sun and fun, few places compare with Southern California. Not Tuesday night.

On Tuesday our normally perfect location prevented us from seeing one of the Sun’s coolest effects: the Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights.

From our vantage the Sun is unchanging. Looks can be deceiving.

If we could remove the Sun’s glare we’d be able to see constant activity on its surface and from time-to-time a Coronal Mass Ejection. In a CME huge clouds of charged particles are blasted from the Sun into space. When I’ve seen satellite images of CMEs they always make me think the Sun is burping!

The direction of these blasts are random, meaning sometimes they’re pointed at Earth!

They vary in speed, but Coronal Mass Ejections average around 1,000,000 mph. That sounds fast until you realize light travels at 670,616,629 mph! That means we see the CMEs before they get here and it helps solar forecasters make predictions to protect sensitive equipment.

The CMEs hit the Earth’s ‘day side,’ distort the our magnetic field and release energy into the upper atmosphere in the terawatt range on the ‘night side.’ A terawatt is 1,000,000,000,000 watts–a thousand times more that a gigawatt (Yes, gigawatts exist outside “Back to the Future”).

All this energy can cause the upper atmosphere to glow. That’s the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights! Most of the time the lights are centered near the Earth’s magnetic poles. That why Alaskans commonly see them as do residents of Scandinavia, Russia and Canada.

Depending on the energy received from the Sun (and a few more variable guaranteed to set your head spinning) the Northern Lights can extend south from the polar regions. Tuesday they were visible in Northern New England and Eastern Canada.

Do we ever see the aurora from SoCal? It’s extremely rare, but not impossible. In 2001 the Northern Lights were seen on Mount Wilson! One can hope.

4 thoughts on “Tuesday’s Aurora, But Not For Me”

  1. I’m actually looking forward to seeing the aurora, if it would just shift west a little. I’m working on a project in Manitoba until the 18th and am hoping it will be visible here before I leave, never having seen it.

  2. It was too cloudy in most areas to possibly see this in Connecticut last night.I have never seen it either and hope to some day.

  3. Mr Science…I love it…will we be seeing you on “Dancing with the Stars” soon? Northern Lights are on my bucket list…..as is the Great Wall of China” sans body guards… lol …keep giving us facts behind the phenomena, Geoff!!!

  4. Hi Geoff,

    Have you seen the movie Gravity yet? If so, what did you think of it?
    I loved it even though some critics are nitpicking some scenes.

    I didn’t live that far from you in Hamden. I live on Brooksvale Avenue.
    The trees are starting to turn colors and are dropping their leaves. Bet
    you don’t miss raking them all up.

    Enjoy Cali – it sounds wonderful.

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