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Another northern lights show? That giant sunspot is back and it’s flaring

Click to play video: 'Northern lights returning to Canadian skies'
Northern lights returning to Canadian skies
Northern lights returning to Canadian skies – May 31, 2024

If you missed out on the stunning show of northern lights earlier this month, you might be in luck over the next couple of weeks.

A major solar active region on the sun continues to put out large expulsions of plasma and magnetic energy, and these impressive solar flares are getting set to face our planet again.

Earlier this month, the most severe geomagnetic storm of the past 20 years hit Earth, treating Canadians (and much of the Northern Hemisphere) to a spectacular display of aurora borealis.

Scotch Creek. Peter Brookes

Now, that same sunspot is reappearing after traversing the far side of the sun, and it has the potential to produce some pretty strong flares in the coming days and months.

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Global News meteorologist Anthony Farnell says that parts of the country could see some aurora activity as early as this weekend.

“There is the potential for a G2 solar storm starting late Friday and we could see northern lights this weekend, but the potential is still there for more flares and even better displays as the sunspot moves towards the centre of the sun facing planet Earth,” he said, adding that the solar storm is “expected to arrive late on May 31 or June 1.”

Purple and blue northern lights in the sky at Sunset Point Beach in Collingwood, Ont. on the night of May 10, 2024. Tania Wood Photography

Solar flares are categorized by strength, with B-class flares being the weakest and X-class the strongest.

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Earlier this month, solar active region AR 13664 produced 12 X-class solar flares across six days, resulting in a G5 magnetic storm on Earth — the strongest since 2003.

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Farnell said the solar region weakened while on the far side of the Sun, but there’s a good possibility for more X-class flares in the days and weeks ahead.

“We are nearing the peak of the 11-year solar cycle, and this peak is stronger than the last peak 11 years ago, so it makes sense that these solar storms we are experiencing have the potential to reach levels we haven’t seen in a couple decades,” he said.

The solar cycle is the name given to the pattern of highs and lows in solar activity that show up in the form of sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME). Our sun is expected to reach the peak of this cycle within the next year, which has solar scientists and aurora chasers fixated with what’s happening on the sun’s surface.

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This peak is very good news for civilian sky-watchers, too, said Farnell, in that more displays of northern lights are likely this summer and fall as the sun reaches its solar peak.

According to spaceweather.com, AR13664 ejected a powerful solar storm earlier this week, on May 27. The class-X2.8 solar even was one of the most intense events in recent years, and caused a huge CME to erupt on the side of the sun, facing away from Earth.

An X-2.9 solar flare erupts from the sun on May 27, 2024. NASA / SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI

The sun has an average rotation period of 27 days, and typically it’s difficult to track what’s happening on the other side of the sphere. Therefore, when these active solar regions return with each rotation, they’re given a new active region number; so now, AR13664 has been renamed AR13697.

On this particular rotation, scientists have been able to track AR13664/13697, thanks to the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter craft, which has been travelling behind the sun. It noticed that the overall frequency of X-class flares has dipped dramatically, but it’s hard to tell if that will become a trend.

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And, as for another stunning show of northern lights similar to the one earlier this month? It’s pretty hard to predict, but not completely off the table.

Northern lights appear over the Dreisamtal valley in the Black Forest near Freiburg, Germany, Friday evening, May 10, 2024. Valentin Gensch/ The Associated Press

The sun will have to either emit multiple X-class solar flares in quick succession or produce one large flare in perfect conditions for a perfectly oriented or positioned CME to replicate May’s incredibly strong geomagnetic storm.

Regardless, it’s worth keeping an eye on aurora prediction websites and apps over the weekend and in the coming weeks to see what the sun has in store.

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