Auroras Becoming More Common as Sun Enters Active Phase

The solar cycle, which takes approximately 11 years, is the Sun's process of flipping poles.

A powerful aurora captured by NASA astronaut Bob Hines aboard the ISS on August 17, 2022.

CRAGGY GARDENS, N.C. — The skies across much of the country on the evening of April 23rd were lit aglow by auroras, also known as the Northern Lights. A powerful solar storm erupted from the Sun only a few days prior, delivering astonishing light shows as far south as the Carolinas.

Just a month prior, another solar flare caused similar displays in the Tar Heel State.

Typically, most auroras stay north of 60°N. That latitude bisects Canada in North America, far from the Carolinas, which sit closer to 35°N.

So, what’s the deal with the more powerful and more frequent auroras? The answer lies in the solar cycle.

Most people know that Sun is a giant, highly explosive ball of electrically charged incandescent gas at the center of our solar system. But, did you know that the Sun flips its poles approximately every 11 years? This process is known as the solar cycle.

The cycle enters its first phase, known as a solar minimum, when the poles flip. As the name would suggest, this phase is known for minimal solar activity. Fewer sunspots, fewer solar flares, and less electrical output can be found on the Sun during its solar minimum.

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NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare – as seen in the bright flash on the upper right – on March 3, 2023. The image shows a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares, and which is colorized in orange. Credit: NASA/SDO

About five-to-six years after the start of the cycle comes the solar maximum, where sunspots, flares, and electrical output reach a fever-pitch. Solar mass coronal ejections can be seen during this period, which flings charged particles across our solar system. When these particles hit the Earth’s magnetosphere, they light up, causing impressive auroras across the northern and southern poles. If the flare from the Sun is strong enough, locations closer to the equator can also see the dazzling displays.

It just so happens that the Sun’s last solar minimum occurred in 2019, meaning that the next solar maximum arrives in late 2024.

Although this is great news for aurora-lovers, it’s not all positive for us Earthlings. Powerful solar storms can disrupt GPS systems and other electronics. The strongest geomagnetic storm in history, known as the Carrington Event, sent auroras as close to the equator as Colombia and even sparked fires along telegram lines in 1859. It’s believed that a storm of similar magnitude would cause widespread blackouts today.

Expect to hear more about solar storms and auroras over the coming months – maybe one will be strong enough to bring the Northern Lights to your neighborhood!