(NewsNation) — Sunspot observations, a key predictor of the northern lights, have dramatically increased since 2022. Scientists say that if the trend continues, the next 18 months will bring the strongest northern lights in decades.
The northern lights will be more viewable, and more often, from more places on Earth in the next 18 months than they have been in the past 20 years and are expected to be in the next decade, scientists told NBC News.
The Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel, an international scientific group sponsored by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, forecasted below-average sunspot activity for the coming year, with 110 to 115 sunspots at its peak.
However, updated models from multiple scientists show sunspots peaking as high as 235.
Solar activity is expected to steadily increase until fall 2024, when the likelihood of viewing the northern lights is highest, according to Mark Miesch, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA.
It’s largely thanks to the aforementioned Solar Cycle 25. Our sun goes through an 11-year period, known as a solar cycle, in which it flips its magnetic poles. This activity fuels the space weather needed to spark the aurora borealis on Earth.
The aurora borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights, are a natural light display that occur in the Earth’s high latitude areas close to the North and South poles. When certain space weather reaches our magnetic fields, it sends particles rushing to the poles, NOAA explains. When those particles interact with oxygen and nitrogen, they can create auroras.
“It’s essentially the sun shooting a magnet out into space,” Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and seasoned space weather forecaster, tells Nexstar.
“When there’s a big disturbance in the magnetic field, then you’re more likely to see aurora at lower latitudes,” Miesch said. Such a disturbance will almost double the likelihood of northern lights in the coming days, he added.
“It’s a little bit of a crapshoot,” Murtagh says. “We’ve had just as many eruptions occur since [spring], but we just haven’t been lucky — or unlucky, whichever way you look at it.”
The majority of recent eruptions on the sun have shot out into other parts of space rather than in our direction.
“But, the sun continues with these bigger eruptions that are just not hitting us, and that could change next week,” he says. “Next week, we could get back-to-back eruptions in the next several weeks, the next couple of months.”
Don’t lose hope just yet, though. The sun is approaching the maximum phase of Solar Cycle 25, Murtagh says. The cycle has also been rising faster and appears bigger than originally predicted.
“The [solar] cycle is rising faster and when it rises faster, it’s typically bigger,” Murtagh previously told Nexstar. “The bigger the cycle, the more eruptions [on the sun], the more likely we see the aurora, bottom line.”