Each glimmer of the Northern Lights begins as a speck on the surface of the sun. And if increased solar activity is any indication, the next year and a half will be full of shimmers.
Sunspot observations, a key indicator of the likelihood of northern lights, have increased dramatically since late 2022, exceeding recent forecasts and in some cases increasing the area from which the phenomenon is visible. Scientists predict that if this trend continues, the next 18 months will bring the strongest aurora activity in both the coming decade and the last 20 years, with the show being seen more frequently and from more places on Earth.
“Sky watchers are excited,” said Mark Miesch, a researcher at the University of Colorado – Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel, an international scientific group sponsored by NASA and NOAA that predicts sunspot activity, predicted in 2019 that the coming year would be below average, with about 110 to 115 sunspots at its peak. However, updated models from several scientists show that the increase in solar activity could be much higher.
Solar activity is expected to increase steadily until fall 2024, when the likelihood of aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, is highest, Miesch said.
Sunspots—dark, strongly magnetic, lower-temperature regions on the Sun’s surface—create space weather when magnetic distortions hurl particles into space. This activity, called a coronal mass ejectionsends particles more than 94 million miles until they find weak spots in Earth’s magnetic field, where particles collide with the planet’s atmosphere and create the neon colors that fill the sky.