Auroras Help Scientists Understand Solar Flares [Video]

Could auroras — the spectacular dance of colored lights in the sky also known as the Northern and Southern Lights — provide some clues on how solar flares can travel so fast? A new study published by University of Glasgow researchers in The Astrophysical Journal said yes.

It’s a burning issue, because the energy from the solar eruptions travels tens of thousands of miles in less than a second, creating the potential to disrupt the world’s power and communication grids without warning. Although we’ve been experiencing a small period of quiet in the sun’s activity, the peak of solar flare activity is expected to arrive in May.

And that’s a big problem because the explosive energy in a solar flare is much greater than the energy from multiple nuclear bomb explosions. An extremely severe flare could damage or destroy world communication and energy grids, and one estimate from the National Research Council suggested that a major flare could cause up to $2 trillion worth of damage and take up to a decade to repair.

The beautiful light display called the aurora is not quite as hard to handle as a full-bore solar flare. Astronomers know that the natural play of colored light that frequently occurs in the polar regions is caused by charged particles that get pulled into the area by the earth’s magnetosphere. As the energetic charged particles collide, they light up.

The new project started with the research team modeling the way that the charged particles are carried by the earth’s magnetic waves to create the aurora. They were then able to get the experience needed to create more advanced models of how magnetic waves might operate in the superheated conditions of the solar atmosphere.

Live in the south where you never see these mythical lights? Check out this amazing video posted to You Tube by National Geographic.

Even if the aurora hadn’t helped science figure out solar flares, I think their beauty has justified their existence, don’t you?