Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Northern Lights

Here in Toronto, we are being told that if we go out and look up into the sky tonight after sunset, we have a 50/50 chance of being able to see the Northern Lights, a.k.a. the aurora borealis (photos copied from Internet sources without permission, with apologies). Apparently, this is the result of a combination of things (according to the website below, "a tumult of activity. There was a C3-class solar flare, a solar tsunami, multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface, large-scale shaking of the solar corona, radio bursts, a coronal mass ejection and more") that happened on the surface of the Sun on August 1st that resulted in some material breaking away from the Sun and heading towards Earth. Not that we have any reason to be alarmed, just that the result is that we might get to see a whole bunch of pretty colours lighting up the night sky tonight and/or tomorrow night (provided it isn't cloudy or raining).

Scientists are suggesting that it's not unusual for this kind of activity to be taking place on the Earth's surface, it's just not always happening in the direction of Earth. They are not certain just yet how strong these solar eruptions are or whether they will actually result in the Northern Lights appearing but it is so unusual for us to be able to see them this far south in Ontario that the news media is making a big deal of this. I for one plan to step outside after dark tonight and see if I can see anything. I may be too far within the city limits to be able to see anything over the glow of the local lights, we might just be able to see "shimmering lights" but it's worth taking a look. I could possibly drive north and see if I can find myself some farmland without a bunch of streetlights around. Except, wait a second, the article I just read suggested they might be visible around 2 a.m. - darn, I'm supposed to be sleeping then! Still, it might be worth being a little tired at work tomorrow.

I can still remember the first and only time I saw the Northern Lights. I was up north in the Temagami area, in the middle of a two week canoe trip. It was the mid 70's, I was probably about 12 or 13 at the time. We had been chased out of our campsite by a bear who made more than one visit to our campsite one day - our counsellors decided that rather than stay and risk another visit from this bear, we should break camp and paddle in the dark to another site they knew of a few miles away. I don't know exactly what time it was but as we paddled, suddenly the sky was glowing with colour. I had never seen anything like it before or since. It would definitely be worth seeing again.

In the meantime, I have an urge to watch the movie "Frequency" starring Dennis Quaid and James Caviezel. This is a great thriller of a movie, although the science fiction may be a little unrealistic to some if you don't believe in alternate dimensions in time but it does feature this very thing as part of the plot, solar eruptions that resulted in the Northern Lights being seen in New York City back in 1969 with some vintage black and white TV footage of Dick Cavett interviewing a scientist explaining how and why the aurora borealis occur.

On another fascinating note, Dwyn Tomlinson turned her Facebook friends on to this very cool website, http://spaceweather.com/, which identifies all sorts of neat stuff going on out there in space and not just while we're sleeping, ALL THE TIME!!

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