Aurora borealis coming into view

The phenomenon is best viewed five to six miles outside the city limits.
Tuesday, November 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:21 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

A misty light arching up to form a green rainbow with a streak of pink on the end might be visible in the northern horizon later this week.

Thanks to a large geomagnetic storm on the sun that began around 5 p.m. on Sunday, the northern sky will dance with shades of orange, pink and green for the next few nights. The phenomenon is known as the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

“The aurora borealis is not a common event, so people should get out and see them,” said Dale Bechtold, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in St. Louis. “They are seen a few times each year, but it is usually later in the winter.”

The aurora was predicted to be visible on Monday night, and could be visible Wednesday and Thursday, said Anthony Lupo, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at MU.

“The best time to view the aurora is during the darkest part of the night, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.,” he said.

Bechtold explained that the reach and intensity of the aurora depends on the strength of the storm activity on the sun.

Positively and negatively charged particles from the sun constantly bombard the Earth, gather at the magnetic poles and cause auroras regularly near the Earth’s magnetic poles.

Lupo said auroras are well-known for their bright coloring and graceful movement. The colors emitted by the aurora depend on the gases present when the super-charged particles gather in Earth’s atmosphere above the poles. As these particles enter Earth’s atmosphere, they excite its gases and give the aurora color and movement as they wave through the air.

Lupo said viewers will need to be five to six miles outside Columbia so the light pollution will not interfere with viewing the aurora.

Lupo said there are conditions that often obscure ideal aurora viewing. Cloudy skies and wet air make it hard to see the night sky clearly. Also, light from the moon might decrease the chance of seeing an aurora because the moonlight will outshine it.

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