It continues to be peak time for solar activity. Could we see the Northern Lights again in the DC area?

We’re currently seeing a spike in solar activity, which has been dubbed “Solar 25.” Thanks to it, the D.C. region got a chance to see the Northern Lights without going way north.

This activity is part of the peak of an 11 year cycle for the sun, but the top of the peak has yet to come.

“As the number of sunspots increase and if we get really kind of complex sunspots, they can launch really strong solar flares,” said Kevin Sterne, senior research associate with the Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN) at Virginia Tech.

While Sterne said not every sunspot leads to solar flares, some create multiple flares. As a result of this increased activity, you can see geomagnetic storms that impact the earth’s magnetic field. The beautiful auroras we see are the earth’s response to that storm.

“If the solar flares are just right, where they’re launching a coronal mass ejection of the Earth, and the magnetic fields in there interact just right, with the Earth’s magnetic field, then it pushes the Northern Lights down from high latitudes, like in northern Canada and Alaska, down to the mid-Atlantic and even beyond, right into Texas and Puerto Rico,” Sterne said.

There is a downside to all this, as the geomagnetic storm can also do a number on satellites. During the storm that resulted in the big aurora borealis show in May, farmers encountered issues with their GPS devices.

“The parts that we can’t see of that, it creates really dense kind of ions or charged particles. These charged particles can interfere and interact with radio wave signals,” Sterne said.

This steady building of solar activity is expected to peak next summer, according to Sterne. As for how this stacks up to previous solar peak periods, Sterne said it is too soon to know.

“In the previous solar cycle, some of the strongest storms were barely producing auroras down to the mid-Atlantic, and certainly not on the magnitude that we saw last May,” Sterne said.

So far, it is nowhere near the worst. That would be the so-called Carrington Event that happened in 1859. During that event, the storm took down telegraph equipment and even caused fires at some telegraph stations.

During Solar 25, researchers are using the data collected to learn more about geomagnetic storms with a hope of better predicting them in the years to come, Sterne said.

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Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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