Technology & Science

Northern lights may give southern show

Two solar storms are pushing the aurora borealis into southern parts of Canada, but unfortunately, the current storm peaked before nightfall in Eastern Canada.

Two solar storms are pushing the aurora borealis into southern parts of Canada that rarely get to enjoy the northern light shows in their skies.

Unfortunately for people in Eastern Canada, the current storm peaked before nightfall.

Source of the aurora

The solar wind launched by the sun contains clouds of plasma, full of particles that include electrons and positive ions. When they reach the Earth, they interact with the Earth's magnetic field, exciting oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth's upper atmosphere.

The aurora is usually best seen in the Arctic and Antarctic because that is the location of the poles of the Earth's magnetic field.

Stargazers "hopefully anywhere across Canada as far south as the 49th parallel … should be able to catch a glimpse" Tuesday night, said Johanna Wagstaffe, a meteorologist for CBC News. The shows could stretch as far south as Toronto, she said, but their visibility will depend partly on how clear the sky is.

Normally, the dancing red and green curtains of light can only be seen north of Edmonton in the west and north of James Bay in the east, said Lorne McKee, space weather forecaster for Natural Resources Canada.

However, four coronal mass ejections — bubbles of plasma — were launched by the sun over the weekend, including as many as two headed toward the Earth.

One arrived Tuesday, but as of 3:30 p.m. ET, "the most significant part of this storm [was] past its peak," McKee said. "I don't think in the southern part of Canada there will be significant aurora."

Major storm possible

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A second was ejected out the side of the sun on Sunday. The U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., said there was a slight chance of a major storm on Wednesday or Thursday. However, due to the angle of the flare's launch, McKee said it might miss the Earth altogether.

The first coronal mass ejection has had small effect on satellite communications so far, McKee said. It was also measurable on the ground using magnetometers, which means it could also affect pipelines and power systems. McKee added that officials in charge of that infrastructure are constantly monitoring space weather to prepare for possible effects.

According to Space Weather Canada, the Natural Resources Canada service that monitors solar storms, there have been four events similar to Tuesday's in the past year.

McKee said the sun is now moving from a quiet period in its 11-year solar cycle to a more active phase, when more solar storms can be expected.