Sunspot numbers are increasing, solar flares and coronal mass ejections are becoming a near daily occurrence, the aurora borealis is frequently being observed at lower latitudes like in the UK, this can only mean one thing… We are reaching solar maximum!
I lived in northern Finland for 8 months and I’ve lived in the Arctic Circle for many years in total and I often get asked, “When is the best time to see the northern lights in the Arctic Circle?” and my answer is normally, “anytime, as long as the sky is clear and it’s dark.” This is 100% true, if you’re in the aurora zone – the region around the Earth’s poles where the aurora is more frequently observed – you’re automatically in the best place to see the aurora, even if solar activity is low.
However, if somebody asked me the question, “When is the BEST time to see the northern lights in the Arctic Circle?” Then I would say, “Easy, during solar maximum.” The next question to be asked would most likely be, “But Matt, when is solar maximum?” The answer to that is quite simple…
The Sun, our host star, goes through a period of activity where it reaches a peak every 11 years. During this peak, we see an increased number of sunspots on the Sun which in turn release more solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME’s), if these explosions on the surface of the Sun are Earth directed then the material that is released will reach the Earth in a few days and generate displays of the northern lights in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The reason the Sun reaches this peak in activity is because its magnetic fields become increasingly more tangled and entwined. They are generated by the motion of the material the Sun is made up of, we call it a plasma, a superheated gas. There comes a point in the cycle where these magnetic fields unravel and that is when the activity calms down and we head towards solar minimum.
The previous peak was a strange one, but it’s widely accepted that it peaked around 2014, which should make the next solar maximum around 2025… But it seems the Sun has a surprise in store. In the last 12 months there has been a dramatic increase in activity from the Sun and many strong geomagnetic storms. This has caused scientists to revaluate predictions, and many have concluded that solar maximum is in-fact now!
What does this mean for you and your chances of seeing the aurora borealis? Well, it’s quite simple, if you want to see the northern lights, these next 12 months or this upcoming aurora season is your best chance of seeing these magical dancing lights above your head that have inspired humans for millennia. The number of sunspots on the surface of the sun are at their highest since 2014, geomagnetic storms are becoming much more frequent. If you want to see the aurora like in the viral videos on social media, now is the time.
And of course, travelling to the Arctic Circle to a destination offered by The Aurora Zone isn’t all about the aurora, there are so many activities to do once you get there and if I’m being honest, these were my favourite part of living in the Arctic. Being pulled through the frozen Arctic forests by huskies is an experience I’ll never forget. The excitement of the dogs as their barks echo through the forest, the freezing air nipping at your face, the feeling of taking part in a mode of transport that has been used in the Arctic for generations is extraordinary. Add to that snowshoeing, snowmobiling, cosy evenings around log fires in purpose built kotas (Arctic forest huts), these next 12 months are the best time to create a memory that will last a lifetime.
Image Credit: Anthony Oberlin