Erikka Askeland: Northern Lights will lead us a merry dance

A spectator watches the aurora borealis. Picture: AP
A spectator watches the aurora borealis. Picture: AP
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Perhaps you will have been lucky enough to have been enchanted by the shimmering, dancing lights in the night sky known as of the aurora borealis this week.

Whenever I have managed to catch them they have brought a feeling of deep joy. If you’re quiet enough, you can almost imagine you can hear the scintillating rustle of the curtain of light in the ether. Even Scotland’s bard likened the surprise of the celestial scene to “pleasures…that flit ere you can point their place”.

But is it just me, or is the sudden appearance of the lights all over the north of Britain – when usually they are only common on midnight cruises off the coast of Norway – a bit sinister?

People have been rightly awed by the scenes in the sky and have been posting remarkable images of it on Facebook, Twitter and a host of public forums. But their unalloyed enthusiasm makes me a bit nervous, in an apocalyptic sort of way. It brings to my mind a cartoon by that genius Gary Larson, where aliens on the surface of the Moon say, “Oooh!” as they watch the fabulous light show provided by nuclear mushroom clouds detonating on the Earth’s surface.

But you might be relieved to know I’ve checked it out and, with any luck, it’s not all that bad. Or at least not yet.

Astrophysicists have reported that the aurora was caused by a 48-hour magnetic storm which peaked Thursday night, the result of a “coronal mass ejection”. Basically, the Sun belched some nuclear plasma from its surface, sending charged particles pelting 93 million miles across space until they slammed into the Earth’s atmosphere. The resulting light thrown off is more commonly seen around the magnetic North and South poles, which draw in the particles.

Solar flares and storms are common on what is essentially a roiling thermonuclear ball of super dense hydrogen and have been observed by us for centuries. But in 1859, astronomer Richard Carrington caught the sun erupting in a particularly dramatic fashion, resulting in a massive flare. A day or so later, the resulting aurorae were seen in the night sky as far south as the Caribbean. It was so bright some reported being able to read the newspaper by its light. The downside to the beauty was that the solar storm was so strong it overpowered telegraph lines. There were reports of telegraph operators getting shocks from their equipment. And even when they shut off the power, some lines could still send signals, driven by phantom electromagnetic surges in the air.

The recent activity adorning our skies was the result of a pretty big solar flare, but the geomagneticists are predicting that this is just the beginning. No-one really knows why, but the Sun has an 11-year cycle, which peaks in a phenomenon called the “solar maximum”. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reckons the next one is due to peak in May 2013.

Of course, our communications infrastructure has come a long way from the telegraph. Big solar flares in the meantime have been known to interfere with power grids, airline communications and knock out the satellites which are used by satnavs and smartphones. Worryingly, the scientists don’t know what an event like 1859 would do to all the fancy gadgetry on which we now rely, but a report in 2008 reckoned it could cost $1 trillion-$2tn (£622 billion to £1.2tn) in damage worldwide.

Researchers who have dug down into ancient ice have uncovered evidence that an angry solar event like 1859 only happens every 500 years or so. But just in case the Sun decides to upset our proposed schedule, a plan is being formed.

When president Barack Obama came to the UK last year, news reports mostly told us what first lady Michelle Obama, was wearing. But Mr Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron also used the occasion to agree a joint project between the Met Office and NOAA, to create the world’s first combined “space weather” monitoring project, able to determine just how much disruption a big solar maximum would cause.

Not that there’s much we could do to stop it. But the researchers argue that the more we know about how it could affect us, the better off we’ll be.

But what we can count on as the Sun pushes the max button will be a remarkable light show. It might even be worth having to give up the gadgets for a few days. As long as we can get them back.