VIRGINIA — A solar storm that made a “direct hit” to Earth Tuesday and more developing storms could trigger aurora borealis displays in Virginia and in areas where the northern lights are rarely seen, according to NASA space weather physicist and forecaster Tamitha Skov.
The best chances to see them appear to be Wednesday and Thursday. The National Weather Service forecast for the next few days calls for a slight chance of thunderstorms in the DC area.
Skov said in a Monday space weather forecast that the snake-like stream of filament that “cartwheeled” off the sun and another “one-two punch” could frustrate emergency crews and others who rely on radio signals, but delight aurora hunters.
Photographers in mid-latitudes and farther north should keep their camera batteries charged over the next week, Skov said.
Solar storms 93 million miles from Earth occur with more frequency midway through an 11-year cycle in which the sun’s magnetic fields flip polarity — and that means the northern lights could dance more often in the next decade or so.
They are never guaranteed, of course, but aurora experts say the busy season for sunspots should peak between 2023 and 2028.
The sun’s magnetic field flips polarity about once every 11 years — and we’re in the middle of that process, the “solar maximum, solar storm equivalent of the hurricane season, according to Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
“The sun has negative and positive polarity, just like Earth,” Murtagh told meteorologist Jennifer Gray. “During this 11-year period, it does a reversal of the polarity. So negative becomes positive and positive becomes negative. During the middle of that process and transition, that’s when those sunspots emerge. So we go through a process when we are in the middle of this transition, we get lots of sunspots and lots of space weather.”
The science behind the aurora borealis is complicated, and all many people care to know that they’re jaw-droppingly beautiful.
The aurora borealis becomes visible to the human eyes when electrons from solar storms collide with the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center.
In normal circumstances, the Earth’s magnetic field guides the electrons in such a way that the aurora forms two ovals approximately centered at the magnetic poles.