May 16, 2013 5:07 pm

UPDATED: Northern Lights visible tonight

Earth is under a geomagnetic storm. So if you’ve got clear skies, you might want to take a look to the north.

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The sun unleashed several X flares this past week. Solar flares heat up gases to millions of degrees and unleash radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum. They are measured by the amount of x-rays they emit. X flares are the strongest emitted from the sun. These flares, if Earth-directed, can cause disruption to communications systems and blackouts, and can pose a danger to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The sun also released a coronal mass ejection (CME), which are similar outbursts, but last longer. They are not associated with flares. The CME that erupted from the sun earlier this week is what is responsible for this storm and the shimmering waves of colours.

The Northern Lights, or aurorae, are the result of the collision of gaseous particles in the Earth’s upper atmosphere (between 96 km and 322 km) with charged particles from the sun. The colours can range from green to red to purple. The most common colour is green, which is produced when oxygen molecules in the upper atmosphere are excited; we get purplish-blue aurorae from nitrogen molecules.

The aurora visible south of Saskatchewan, April 30, 2013. (Garry Stone)

Garry Stone

The aurora dance in eastern Ontario (Malcolm Park)

Malcolm Park

Because the aurorae circle the poles, those living in higher latitudes have a better chance to see them.

© Shaw Media, 2013

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