Astronomy profs speak to odds of Northern Lights sightings

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 04-04-2023 6:26 PM

A beautiful night sky view usually seen in countries much farther north than the United States recently delighted western Massachusetts stargazers, and local astronomy professors say there’s about a 50% chance of witnessing the spectacle again in the next two years.

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, lit up the sky in Franklin and Hampshire counties on March 23. Such a light display occurs when the sun experiences solar storms or coronal mass ejections, which are large expulsions of plasma and magnetic field from the sun’s atmosphere. Local professors explained the sun always has steady streams of charged particles moving on its surface, but extreme weather can send these particles into outer space and toward the Earth’s surface.

“When it points the right way, the gust of solar wind washes over the Earth,” explained Smith College astronomy professor James Lowenthal. “The Earth’s magnetic field can capture some of the solar wind and funnel it down to the north and south magnetic pole. ... You are seeing the atmosphere glowing because it has been charged by energized particles.”

The quality of a Northern Lights display is typically judged by how much of the sky is illuminated and what colors are shown. The colors depend on what particles are activated, but they most often glow in a green color, according to Ted Johnson, a professor in physics, astronomy and meteorology at Greenfield Community College.

The March 23 display, however, contained a red glow.

“This was a spectacular display,” Lowenthal recounted. “It showed way up high in the sky.”

Although the Northern Lights are common above the Earth’s 45-degree latitude, this display was seen at 42 degrees latitude.

“It doesn’t happen too often around here,” Johnson said.

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Lowenthal cited a major display on Oct. 30, 2003, and said there have been more minor displays in western Massachusetts since then.

Both professors said the sun operates on an 11-year cycle of activity. Right now is two years away from the sun’s maximum activity period, so Northern Lights sightings will increase during that time. Lowenthal said there is “a good chance,” roughly 50%, that there will be another lights display seen locally within the next two years.

When it comes to advice for how stargazers can catch the best Northern Lights, Lowenthal said “light pollution is the enemy.” He pointed to the website lightpollutionmap.info to find a spot with less light pollution close by. Stargazers can also download the smartphone app My Aurora Forecast to get push notifications ahead of special events, like a display of the aurora borealis.

Outside of technology, the professors mentioned the importance of finding a viewing spot without trees and, hopefully, a cloudless night.

“All you need is a lawn chair and a good view to the north,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he is looking forward to a total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. The full eclipse will be viewable from northern Vermont.

“We are lucky that we live with an active star that keeps us warm,” Johnson commented, “and an active planet that balances things out for the stability we need as human life forms.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.

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