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.