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Britain might lose Northern Lights due to solar winds of change

Scientists have discovered that by the middle of 21st century, Britain might lose sight of the Northern Lights due to major shifts in solar activity.

Space scientists at the University of Reading concluded that plummeting solar activity will shrink the overall size of the sun’s “atmosphere” by a third and could make the aurora less common away from the north and south polar regions in the next few decades.

The heliosphere, the ‘bubble’ around the solar system which is maintained by particles emitted by the sun, will shrink significantly as a reduction in the solar wind occurs. Solar wind consists of electrically charged particles that travels at around a million miles per hour from the sun.

The heliosphere that has weakened since the 1950s, helps shied the Earth from harmful radiation from outer space. The scientists have predicted that the bubble’s size will reduce rapidly by the middle of the 21st century.

This could make the Earth more vulnerable to technology-destroying solar blasts and cancer-causing cosmic radiation. Some of the radiation are deflected by the Earth’s own magnetic field but areas close to the north and south poles are more vulnerable where the Earth’s magnetic field is weakest.

Dr Mathew Owens, from the University of Reading’s Meteorology department, mentioned that,

“The magnetic activity of the sun ebbs and flows in predictable cycles, but there is also evidence that it is due to plummet, possibly by the largest amount for 300 years,”

“If so, the Northern Lights phenomenon would become a natural show exclusive to the polar regions, due to a lack of solar wind forces that often make it visible at lower latitudes.”

“As the sun becomes less active, sunspots and coronal ejections will become less frequent. However, if a mass ejection did hit the Earth, it could be even more damaging to the electronic devices on which society is now so dependent.”

The study conducted, ‘Global solar wind variations over the last four centuries’, is now published in Scientific Reports. The study, combined with updated models and contemporary reports, the researchers were able to predict what could happen during a similar event, likely to occur in the next few decades.

Co-author Professor Mike Lockwood FRS, University of Reading, said: “If the decline in sunspots continues at this rate, and data from the past suggests that it will, we could see these changes occurring as early as the next few decades.

“The Maunder Minimum in solar activity of the 17th century is sometimes mistakenly thought to be the cause of the so-called Little Ice Age, when winter temperatures in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, were lower than average.

“But the Little Ice Age began before the Maunder Minimum and ended after it, and our previous work with the Met Office has shown that the coming solar minimum will do little to offset the far more significant global heating effects of greenhouse gas emissions.”





Full reference:

M.J. Owens, M. Lockwood, P. Riley (2017). ‘Global solar wind variations over the last four centuries’. Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/srep41548

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About Yi Wen Lee

Year 2 International Business and Finance student.

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