Science

A 'cannibal' is on its way from the sun, but don't panic: You might see the northern lights

The sun has been alive with a flurry of activity over the past few days and that means that there's the increased chance we may see the northern lights Wednesday night.

Several solar flares and coronal mass ejections have erupted from the sun

The sun will be quite active over the coming days, with NASA forecasting a strong geomagnetic storm. This means an increased chance of catching the northern lights. (All images © Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

Over the past few days, the sun has been alive with a flurry of activity, with sunspots spewing out magnetic energy and releases of fast-moving particles called coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

The good news is that for us here on Earth, and particularly in Canada, it means a geomagnetic storm and the increased possibility of catching the northern lights.

While the sun is always active, it has an 11-year cycle with a minimum and a maximum of activity. During the solar maximum — which we have just begun — more sunspots can be seen across the sun's surface. 

These sunspots are cooler regions that appear black when seen through solar telescopes. But they're more than just a little black spot on the sun: these regions are an entanglement of magnetic fields that can sometimes erupt with a solar flare. And very often, they are followed by a coronal mass ejection, a huge burst of charged particles that are carried along the solar wind. 

This image shows several groups of sunspots across the face of the sun on Wednesday. The sun is in Solar Cycle 25 and has just begun to become more active. (NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory)

If Earth is in the path of these charged particles, they can interact with our own magnetic field and then with molecules in the upper atmosphere, which then gives us the northern lights, or aurora borealis. 

Right now, there are seven groups of sunspots across the face of the sun. On Tuesday, NASA recorded that one of the groups unleashed more than 17 flares, varying from weak to medium events. And, as a result, two large CMEs were burped out from the sun, travelling at roughly 1,500 kilometres per second.

WATCH | Solar flares erupt on the surface of the sun from March 28–30

Cannibal coronal mass ejection

8 months ago
Duration 0:23
This NASA animation shows what they refer to as a 'cannibal coronal mass ejection,' an eruption of fast-moving particles from the sun. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests that the second CME will overtake the first, merging to become one single "cannibal CME." It is forecast to reach Earth at roughly 11 p.m. ET on Thursday.

But there may be several days of increased activity.

At roughly 2 p.m. ET Wednesday, the sun released an X-class flare. X flares are the strongest type and are typically measured on a range of one to nine, though more powerful ones have been recorded throughout history.

How to see it

It's important to remember that the sun doesn't always play nicely with predictions, however. The CME could arrive earlier or later. It also may not interact as strongly with our magnetic field as much as they are predicting. 

But that being said, definitely keep an eye out for northern lights over the next couple of days.

WATCH | What happens during a "cannibal coronal mass ejection"

Solar flares released

8 months ago
Duration 0:20
This video from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows several solar flares (top centre). These flares were accompanied by two coronal mass ejections which are heading towards Earth. Credit: NASA/SDO

While places in northern Canada, like Yellowknife, Whitehorse or Fort Smith, N.W.T., frequently see the northern lights, powerful storms like the one that this is predicted to be means that areas much farther south may get a chance to see them, too.

For those in places like Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal, the aurora may appear closer to the horizon, so it's important to get to an area away from city lights with a good view of the northern horizon. Heading further north increases your chances.

If you want to try to find out how good your chances are of catching the northern lights, you can check out NASA's Space Weather Prediction Center's site.

They provide a scale called the Kp Index, which measures geomagnetic activity on a scale from zero  to 10. For cities like Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, a Kp index of four — or even lower sometimes — means you'll likely be able to see the northern lights. But for cities like Toronto and Vancouver, you'll need a higher index, likely closer to six or seven. 

Seasoned aurora chaser Chris Ratzlaff, who helps run the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group, produced a map of visibility for a Kp index of 7 across Canada. (Chris Ratzlaff)

You can also check out sites like  Spaceweather.com and Spaceweatherlive.com.

You might also try setting up a camera to photograph the northern lights, as cameras are more sensitive than the human eye. Try a 15-second exposure using an ISO of 1600 at f/4 or lower.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at Nicole.Mortillaro@cbc.ca.

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