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Northern Lights: What the Hell Are They Anyway, and Why Are They So Hard to Predict?

Where: Lofoton, Norway
January 14, 2014 at 10:27 AM | by | ()

It starts with an explosion on the surface of the sun.

Huge amounts of energy are released and sent barreling towards Earth, where the particles enter our planet's atmosphere and collide with its magnetic field. When the solar storm is strong enough, the result of this interaction is what we have come to know as the Northern Lights. But as we're learning this week, it is extremely difficult for anyone to predict if, when, and where you'll be able to see them, as evidenced by all the false alarms across North America this weekend.

Scientists (and you via Space Weather) can see that a solar flare has occurred -- meaning that the energy is on its way -- but they are still unable to accurately forecast the appearance of the lights. At first, we were a little surprised by this. We can put a man on the moon, yet we can't understand particle interaction in and above our atmosphere? What's up with that? But then again, predicting the weather has never been the human race's strong point (queue the hate mail from weathermen).

Twice this week, we were advised by local professionals that the conditions were "ideal" to see the lights. Twice, we've been disappointed. Is this exactly what makes the Northern Lights so special? You bet. Even when the conditions are great, they may only be visible from a certain area (typically one you are not at) or they may simply not show up at all. Or the clouds roll in. Or you go inside for a cup of coffee, and you miss it altogether.

Sometimes they appear for an hour, sometimes just a few minutes. Sometimes they dance all over the sky like a cloud that's had too much to drink, and sometimes it seems like mom and dad locked up the liquor cabinet before they went to bed. You just don't know, but that's what makes seeing them so incredible. We imagine that, when it does happen, we're going to feel pretty good about it.

But, so far, Tom Petty is right: The waiting is the hardest part. Tomorrow, we'll share a few ways we've found to pass the time in northern Norway. And when we do see them (and we will, because we're not leaving until we do), we certainly won't keep it a secret.

[Photo: Accuweather]

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