northern lights


Next Few Years Could be Hard to Beat The sun is on fire these days. Ahead of an expected spike in solar activity, it is hurling massive blobs of hot plasma toward Earth. And while this may disrupt civilization, the flipside is that it will likely bring awesome aurora. According to Don Hampton of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, approximately every 11 years our sun’s magnetic poles switch. South becomes north, and vice versa. The years preceding this are called the solar maximum. Hampton expects the next maximum to peak in 2025 or 2026. As a solar maximum approaches, violent events unfold across the sun’s surface—including fierce solar winds, collapsing filaments of electrified gas, distortions in the sun’s magnetic field, and massive ejections of plasma—which send geomagnetic storms hurtling toward Earth. In space, it can damage satellites and threaten astronaut safety. On Earth, it can disrupt…

A brilliant moon illuminates fresh white snow on the Kenai Mountains in southcentral Alaska as multicolored auroras dance above Portage Lake on November 7, 2017, at 3:33 am. Photo by Todd Salat. “I hear the northern lights are going to shut off because we’re in the low of the solar cycle,” someone had told me a while back. This thought flashed through my mind as I stood bewildered by the aurora dancing directly over me last March in Alaska’s interior. Not one night, but five nights in a row, the nighttime sky erupted with wild, bizarre sheets of emerald white and crimson light rippling and following the turbulent whims of our magnetic field interacting with the solar wind. Science turned magical. It’s true that we are currently in what’s called solar minimum, the quieter phase in the approximate 11-year sunspot cycle. This means sunspots are low in number. Headline-grabbing explosions…

Capturing the spirit in the sky

A SHIMMER OF LIGHT FLICKERS OVER THE KOBUK RIVER AND THE CURVE OF THE BORNITE HILLS. Then another. As I gaze eastward, yellow-white tongues of fire rise from the horizon, accelerate in pulsing curtains that blaze overhead, shred and vanish, then form again.