Northern lights predicted as possibility Thursday

Monday, October 8, 2012 | 6:46 p.m. CDT; updated 9:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 8, 2012

COLUMBIA — Thursday’s weather forecast: A 50 percent chance of rain with a moderate chance that shades of violet, yellow and blue will appear in the sky.

Astronomers at are saying there's a decent chance the northern lights will be visible some time after sunset on Thursday, even as far south as Columbia. That's because of unusually strong activity on the sun, which on Friday produced a coronal mass ejection. That solar storm produced a northern lights show on Earth early Monday morning that reportedly was visible as far south as Kansas, Wisconsin and Utah.

In Columbia, astronomer Val Germann said he heard reports of northern lights being visible here early Monday as well.

Coronal mass ejections are huge bubbles of gas threaded with magnetic field lines that are ejected from the sun over the course of several hours, according to NASA. The solar storms disrupt the flow of the solar wind, and they can produce disturbances that wreak some havoc on Earth.

But they can also light up the sky.

What are the northern lights?

The northern lights, scientifically known as aurora borealis, are a light display in the sky most common in areas closest to the North and South poles, such as Canada, Alaska and Antarctica. This color effect happens when energized ions or atoms clash with the Earth's atmosphere and are affected by lines of magnetic force.

Common colors produced by the effect are shades of yellow, blue, pink and violet.

What is the probability of this happening?

Warrenton amateur astronomer Doug Kniffen said two things have to happen before an aurora borealis occurs. First, there must be a sufficient enhancement of the ionosphere and, second, a geomagnetic disturbance. 

The ionosphere is the thin layer of solar radiation that affects the different molecules by raising their level of energy, according to Steve Bertel, president of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association.

Although both these phenomenon must occur to create aurora, it's not necessary that they both be intense.

“If there is a low density of the ionosphere, it may still occur, but it will be hard to see and even worse to photograph,” Kniffen said. 

How to prepare for the show

Kniffen said that in order for people in the Columbia area to to view the northern lights, the aurora oval depicted on aurora forecast sites would have to arrive at least at the Iowa/Minnesota border and preferably further south. 

To spot the northern lights, be sure you're looking toward the North Pole. Make sure you are in a dark area, away from city lights. Germann said it makes sense, then, for Boone County residents to be north of Columbia.

Those who are interested also should keep up-to-date because weather conditions tend to change depending on location, Kniffen said. You can do that by monitoring or the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska.

In case this space show doesn't pan out, Germann said meteor showers are predicted for the weekend of Oct. 19.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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Skip Yates October 9, 2012 | 9:42 a.m.

You might see them if you can look through rain clouds.....

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