Night sky watchers may be treated to more colorful auroral displays in the coming years, according to a new forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center reported that our sun is ramping up activity as it approaches its next solar maximum, expected between January and October 2024. This peak in the sun’s 11-year cycle could lead to heightened northern lights visibility, even at relatively low latitudes like Arizona and New Mexico.
“When the sun is active and emitting more solar flares and coronal mass ejections, there is an increased probability of those energetic particles making it into Earth’s atmosphere and creating beautiful aurora displays,” said Lt. Bryan Brasher, a project manager at the Space Weather Prediction Center.
The incoming Solar Cycle 25 was originally forecast to be a relatively mild one, similar to the last cycle. But scientists have upgraded their projections based on new data showing our star is strengthening faster than expected.
“The caveat is that reliably forecasting specific aurora events more than a few days out remains extremely difficult,” cautioned Brasher. “But based on previous solar cycles, we expect more space weather overall during a stronger maximum.”
Even within a below-average cycle, some severe space weather has already impacted the Earth this year. In April, a strong geomagnetic storm triggered radio blackouts across the Pacific region.
When storms like these impact the magnetosphere around Earth, the resulting disturbances can amplify aurora visibility if energetic particles make it into the upper atmosphere. Auroras form when those particles interact with nitrogen and oxygen molecules.
So for those hoping to catch the celestial light show, the next couple years may provide prime viewing opportunities throughout the Southwest. Clear dark skies away from city lights offer the best conditions, so rural areas like eastern Arizona and New Mexico may luck out. Keep an eye on the space weather forecasts, and bundle up for some late night sky gazing!
Cover photo: Aurora Borealis viewed from Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Courtesy of: NASA / Bill Dunford