Jimmy Westlake: Chasing the Northern Lights

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The sun has been very quiet lately, a most unsteady calm, considering that this is predicted to be the peak year of activity in the sun’s 11-year sunspot cycle. Normally, at this stage in the cycle, large sunspots would pepper the sun’s face and solar flares would be popping and spewing clouds of ionized particles into space. But solar cycle 24, as the current one is labeled, has not been a normal cycle. After an uncomfortably long solar minimum that stretched two years longer than expected, solar astronomers had to downgrade their predictions for cycle 24, expecting it to be the weakest solar max in more than a century.

Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

There are some indications that the sun’s 11-year magnetic heartbeat might be about to flatline and sunspots could disappear indefinitely. The last time this happened was in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a 70-year period known as the Maunder Minimum. This interval of ultra-low sunspot activity coincided with an unusually cold period in Europe called the Little Ice Age. While the sunspot-climate connection is poorly understood, it seems to be real.

During the previous solar maximum in the early 2000s, colossal solar flares brought brilliant, colorful displays of the Northern Lights all the way down from the Arctic into Colorado a dozen times. This time around, we’ve seen only one weak display of the Northern Lights from Colorado and that happened in March.

All of the required conditions for seeing the Northern Lights are converging in late September. The full moon is waning, leaving the sky nice and dark. The sun is nearing the peak of its activity cycle, weak though it may be. And, for unknown reasons, the Northern Lights are most common around the time of the two equinoxes in March and September. Will the Northern Lights make a rare appearance over Colorado soon?

Rather than sit around Steamboat and wait for the Northern Lights to come to us, a group of Colorado Mountain College astronomy enthusiasts is about to travel north to the Arctic Circle where the colorful lights are common. On Thursday, I’m taking 22 CMC students, faculty, and staff — all members of the CMC SKY Club — on a five-day Alaska Northern Lights Expedition, with stops in Anchorage, Denali National Park, Delta Junction, Fairbanks and points beyond. If the weather and sun cooperate, we plan to experience, photograph and study the Northern Lights up close and personal from their Arctic home.

Of course, there is no guarantee of success. I mounted a similar expedition two solar cycles ago with a group from Young Harris College in northern Georgia. We planned to travel to Nova Scotia to view the Northern Lights in March 1989. The night before we flew out, a spectacular display of the Northern Lights erupted and was visible all the way down into Georgia! From Nova Scotia, we never saw the slightest hint of an aurora. Mother Nature sometimes can play cruel tricks.

If we have better luck with our current expedition, I’ll be sure to share some of the best images with you through this column upon our return. In the meantime, keep an eye on the sky and also on the NASA sponsored website www.space

weather.com for aurora forecasts and updates.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.

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