The sun has been spewing a lot of hot plasma lately, part of an ongoing dance around the peak of its 11-year sunspot cycle. One recent blast of solar wind was clocked at 2 million mph before it grazed Earth, sparking the northern lights farther south than usual.
A Michigan photographer caught amazing images of those lights over Lake Superior on Oct. 2, and again when another plasma blast triggered more aurora borealis displays a week later. She compiled that footage into the time-lapse video above, "Radiance," which has already racked up more than 50,000 views on Vimeo in less than a week.
Fall is normally a good season to see auroras near the Arctic, but the looming solar max has been pushing "insanse" northern lights down to the Great Lakes, photographer Shawn Malone tells Universe Today. "We had a very strong auroral event here on October 2nd and 9th on Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan," Malone says. "[W]hat you are seeing in this video is the interaction of the solar wind impacting the magnetosphere at millions of miles per hour, [and] that interaction causing the northern lights."
The auroras "really lit up" Lake Superior in early October, she adds, but the show may be far from over. According to a NASA sunspot forecast, pictured below, the solar cycle is expected to continue intensifying into late 2013, possibly peaking in December.
The graph above shows past and predicted frequency of sunspots, magnetic fields that emerge from inside the sun and sometimes erupt with bursts of plasma known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. These charged particles generate solar storms that can disrupt satellites and electrical grids when they strike Earth, but they also trigger auroras around the planet's poles by colliding with atoms high in the atmosphere.
More solar activity might mean more southern cameos by the northern lights in coming months, but even if not, NASA's forecast at least hints at a vivid winter for higher-latitude skies. The agency recently predicted the sun's magnetic field "is about to flip," referring to a periodic reversal that signals the apex of the solar cycle. That could happen by December, scientists say, but since the solar cycle follows a bell curve, the overall odds of aurora displays should be relatively high until the peak and well afterward.
"The coming reversal will mark the midpoint of Solar Cycle 24," a NASA press release explained in August. "Half of 'Solar Max' will be behind us, with half yet to come."
See this NASA ScienceCast video for more about the agency's solar forecast:
And for more time-lapse videos of the northern lights — plus tips on how to see them yourself — check out the related links below from MNN.
Related aurora stories on MNN:
- Auroras join rare spectacle in Scotland
- 7 of the best aurora videos from 2012
- Listen to the roar of a solar storm
- 6 great places to see the northern lights