If you Google the word “aurora” to find out whether the Northern Lights—the Aurora Borealis—might be visible in the Millbrook area on a particular night, make sure not to type in “aura” accidentally, as I did a few nights ago. Instead of gaining some insight into an awe-inspiring spectacle of nature, you will instead witness the jaw-dropping spectacle of human gullibility dressing up nature with a lot of new-age pseudoscience. I am referring, of course, to the belief that human heads somehow emit a visible electromagnetic corona whose colours correspond to one’s emotional state. Auras are quite a fantasy.
Yet they are quite a disappointing fantasy when we consider that the reality is so much cooler. Not literally cooler—the Aurora Borealis that on very rare occasions graces our northern skies begins on the broiling surface of the sun—but a moody penumbra triggered by the cancellation of one’s favourite TV show, let’s say, has nothing on the awesome spectacle of solar particles travelling 147 million kilometers through space and racing down earth’s magnetic field lines to smack into the atmosphere and scatter in shifting curtains of red, green, purple, violet, and white. There was a barely-visible display in Millbrook on November 4 that, if you saw it, makes the point much more eloquently than I ever could.
And yet there is, I suppose, a kind of connection between auras and auroras. Auroras are created when particles streaming in the solar wind are either directly captured by the earth’s magnetic field lines or else stream behind the earth and ride backward along its magnetic “tail” to the north and south poles. There, as mentioned, energetic particles collide with molecules of oxygen or nitrogen, primarily, and radiate showers of light in characteristic hues. This tends to happen more frequently when a particular solar cycle is reaching its roughly 11-year peak. We will reach the peak of Solar Cycle 25 in 2025. So, in a way, the aurora is the aura of the ever-changing “mood” of the sun, currently moving somewhere between “moderately upset” and “decidedly cranky.”
Auroras are beautiful, but they are also a reminder that our definition of “environment” is too limited if we think only in terms of land, water, and air. We are also space creatures. Very nearly all forms of energy on earth originate ultimately in the sun, and we are vulnerable to larger perils than the ones tearing up our news feeds these days. Auroras, when the sun is feeling really crabby, can be so large that they overload electrical grids and fry the brains of satellites, computers, and other delicate electrical systems. This happened in March 1989 when a huge explosion on the sun—a coronal mass ejection, or CME, 36 times larger than the earth—brought down the electrical grid in Quebec and parts of Ontario, disrupting communications as far south as Florida. That was the first and, I am bitterly saddened to say, the last time I have seen the aurora in person. My aura has still not recovered.
The aurora of 1989 was certainly impressive, but the granddaddy of all CME’s gave us the great Carrington Event of 1859. This was an aurora so fierce it ignited fires at the terminus of telegraph wires and created a bright display seen as far south as Mexico and Australia. If a CME at the level of the Carrington Event were to occur today, with our current level of global electronic webbiness, there is no telling what it would do. We might want to keep our telegraph wires handy. And candles.
Stargazer by Dennis Vanderspek