University of Alberta physics researcher expects brilliant Northern Lights …

Keep an eye on the sky for a spectacular light show this weekend.

Dr. Andy Kale is a research associate at the University of Alberta department of physics who runs the website AuroraWatch.ca. He says once the clouds clear, there could be a great display of the Northern Lights.

“(Friday night) might be a little bit of a damp squib, as it were, but (Saturday) night it should be good,” Kale said.

One of the spots on the sun sent out a massive solar flare — an intense X-Ray burst of electromagnetic radiation. It takes about eight minutes for that energy to reach the earth, with potential disruption to the ionosphere — a high part of the atmosphere where radio signals bounce off.

But on top of that, there is a “coronal mass injection,” which sends out charged particles from the sun that travel slower, at about two million miles per hour.

“What happens when the charged particles reach the Earth is the interact with the Earth’s magnetic field,” Kale said. “They charge it up, they pump it up. These particles get absorbed into the magnetic field lines and these then cause it to become excited then all of a sudden it will quickly relax.”

The result is pushed down particles into the atmosphere, causing the display of lights known as Aurora Borealis — the Northern Lights.

The intensity of the energy can produce the different colours.

Lower energy particles that hit the Earth’s atmosphere produce the classic green due to oxygen transitions. Higher energy and oxygen collisions and nitrogen can create different colours like reds. In extreme energetic cases there can even be blue.

“The best advice is find a dark spot and look to the Northern sky,” said Kale, who will be watching from his back garden.

But the most intense displays can even be seen from the city.

“Once upon a time, there was a really big display in October 2004,” Kale said. “I had a flat on Whyte Avenue. I stood on the balcony and was treated to a hell of a show.”

Tim LeRiche, spokesman with EPCOR, said solar flares have happened twice in recent memory and no power was impacted.

“You know what happened the first time? Nothing. You know what happened the second time? Nothing,” he said. “This is the third time I’ve gone through this, so my guess is nothing’s going to happen.”

In the case of a large-scale event, there are backup crews that can be called in.

Solar flares can knock out high-frequency communications systems, such as those used for cellphones and GPS systems. SpaceWeather.com said the solar flare disrupted some communication systems for about an hour.

The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska said the auroral activity will be visible, weather permitting, as far south as Thunder Bay, Ont., Halifax, and Boston. There could be increased visibility of the northern lights for the next week or so.

In 1989, Quebec was hit with power outages for nine hours due to a solar storm.

catherine.griwkowsky@sunmedia.ca

@SunGriwkowskyC

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *