Right now, Earth is experiencing an amazing natural event — one you may not even have noticed if you haven’t been looking directly at the sun, as your mother wisely warned. A very large sunspot has been tracking across our nearest star and is about to face directly toward our planet. Known as AR1476, the sunspot is hurling coronal mass ejections (CMEs) at us.
CMEs are bubbles of gas, which release huge quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. The ejected material, a plasma, consists mainly of protons and electrons and small quantities of helium, oxygen, and iron. These bursts of energy striking the Earth’s magnetic field are the makings for some colorful and fantastic auroras.
AR1476 is so large that people are noticing it without the aid of a solar telescope. The best time to look for it is at sunrise or sunset, when the light of the low-hanging sun is somewhat dimmed. The sunspot looks like the Hawaiian archipelago, but it is much bigger than any island on Earth. From end to end, AR1476 stretches out across 99,419 miles, or a dozen times wider than our entire globe.
A few days ago, on May 8, 2012, a solar wind stream hit Earth’s magnetic field, stirring geomagnetic activity and auroras at high latitudes. And scientists predict that AR1476 could be on the verge of producing something even stronger.
So in honor of the sunspot, read the except below, written by naturalist guide Conrad Hennig, from the Churchill chapter of NatHab’s new book, An Adventurous Nature: Tales from Natural Habitat Adventures. Then watch the following video from filmmakers Claus and Anneliese Possberg (music by Justin Durban), who used about six hundred frames to create this montage of the northern lights dancing in the skies over Norway.
Excerpt from “A South African’s Guide to the Great Bears of the North” in the book An Adventurous Nature: Tales from Natural Habitat Adventures:
“What are we still doing out on the Arctic tundra in the pitch of night? Churchill hosts a second extraordinary natural phenomenon, only visible on cloudless, still, cold evenings. The town is positioned under the Van Allen Belt, a circumpolar irregular ribbon demarcating the best place on Earth to see the aurora borealis, the northern lights. I periodically venture to the buggy’s balcony and, with teeth clattering, look up into the heavens to see whether the characteristic green tinge is visible. Tonight we have hit the jackpot and swirls of jade green — like delicate, seamlessly flowing, sand ribbons — dance through the heavens, as if God shook out His bioluminescent duvet over the Earth. Sometimes He shakes a bit harder, and the ribbons shoot downwards, the color spectrum extending through yellow and, in rare bursts, amber red.”