Unusual Aurora Borealis Appearance in the Upper Midwest - KMSP-TV

Unusual Aurora Borealis Appearance in the Upper Midwest

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The northern parts of the country are certainly not removed from the possibility of seeing the northern lights, but it is far more common in the winter than in the summer. There are far fewer nighttime hours in the summer which narrows the window of when they can be seen, and the earth is tilted toward the sun which is what creates those longer days. Typically, the areas of the earth tilted away from the sun have a better chance of experiencing the Aurora Borealis. This is just due to how the ionosphere and thermosphere work to keep large amounts of radiation and the suns magnetic field out of our atmosphere. So, during the winter, the Auroras play a big role in the northern latitudes, lighting up the skies from the northern U.S. to the North Pole.

How are the Auroras created? When a large mass of particles leaps off the surface of the sun (often called a solar flare), they are hurdled into space and sometimes in the direction of earth. They travel the millions of miles through space, past the orbits of the first two planets and end up at the orbit of earth. This is called the solar wind. It is this solar wind that hits the outer atmosphere of the earth (called the thermosphere) and creates these beautiful auroras. But the solar wind is a constant phenomenon continuing to occur even as you are reading this. So why aren't the Northern Lights always around? Well it takes far more solar energy to create these spectacles then on any one day. So large waves of energy are needed (called solar storms).

It's a lot like storms on earth. Say it's a bright sunny day with plenty of blue sky… this would be the average solar wind day in space. But then a large trough dives through Minnesota creating an area of low pressure which allows the clouds to build and then the rain to fall. The trough and the Low are the catalyst to make the storms develop just like the solar flare is the catalyst to make the solar storm that impacts earth and allows the auroras to develop. There are many locations on earth that measure solar activity arriving to earth. The graph below shows the amount of solar energy that's hitting the earth, specifically the United States. If the amount increase enough, these bars rise, turn red, and then the northern lights could possibly develop.

One of these auroras began impacting the earth last night (early June 29th). This picture shows a very pronounced event in parts of South Dakota which we might have seen ourselves if it wasn't for the clouds and showers.

Now, let me point a few things out. First off, the yellow and orange colors toward the ground is just light pollution in the atmosphere from cities, cars, highways, etc… The actual auroras are the streaks of color you see orientated from top to bottom. The camera lens is more sensitive than the human eye so they often show up a bit better on camera then what you would see with your eyes.  You would likely need to be looking for them to see them, you aren't usually just going to stumble upon them.   Not to mention, any sort of light will drown them out so you will need to be in the open country and as far away from any light source as possible. Something similar may happen again tonight so keep your eyes to the sky if you are outside of any city.

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