As an adult there is not much that compares to the excitement of a forecast for aurora borealis that contains the phrase “strongest geomagnetic storm of the current solar cycle. This storm is underway now.” Though forecasts for record breaking blizzards still make me tingle a bit, there is no earth weather forecasts that come close to the level of giddiness associated with an almost guarantee for an incredible light show. Over the years of following space weather forecasts I have learned to take them much less seriously than typical earth weather forecasts.
Beyond the visual show of northern lights the thing that makes them so incredible is the low probability of ever seeing them at all. First off it begins 93,000,000 miles away on the surface of the sun. It takes a coronal mass ejection; which typically emanate from concentrations of magnetism or sunspots. These ejections release huge quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. The genesis of this ejection needs to be from a place on the surface of the sun that is facing earth for us to ever have a chance of seeing disturbances in the magnetosphere. Even though coronal mass ejections are quite common, they are not directed at earth very often. After a wave of radiation is directed our way the timing and weather on earth still needs to be just right. It needs to be dark, and clear. These two necessities for a good show are much harder to obtain at the right time than it seems. A full moon or clouds, or both can easily diminish the strongest storms.
I read about the forecast for one of the strongest storms in recent history yesterday afternoon and quickly checked for the likelihood of a dark clear night. The forecast was for mostly clear skies with an almost non existent moon, this ratcheted up my excitement and I started checking the clock every 10 minutes. Waiting for darkness reminding me of the last day of school; time stood still. Just after sunset the horizon was glowing green and with camera and tripod in hand I raced down to the lake. All of the waiting and excitement was worth it as I spent the next four hours with my mouth hanging open underneath a constantly evolving blanket of green and red. I have seen a good amount of aurora displays before but this show was topping them all.
It all came together last night, I felt like I had won a galactic lottery. The show lasted for many hours but at its most intense it was the most incredible thing I have ever seen.