It’s rare I get to put two things I love together into the same blog post. But this is police work and my love for the sky. And it’s a story of something we rarely see this far south and how I got to share it with a very unlikely person.
I was on patrol that night, and there had been one of those incidents a Deputy Sheriff gets to see all too often. A man had come home drunk, and he and his wife had gotten into an argument. She didn’t want him there, called us, and I offered to give him a ride to his mother’s house in Antonito.
Since there hadn’t been a physical altercation, it seemed like a good idea to everyone involved. So he grabbed a change of clothes, and we left.
It was early in the morning, and as we drove he and I talked.
We were driving north and were on a dark back road, and both of us were looking at the northern sky. Something was wrong with it.
“What is that?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
I pulled over and turned off the lights.
Broad ribbons of blue, green, and purples chased each other across the northern sky.
“Wow!” A thrill ran through me as I realized what I was looking at. “It’s the Aurora Borealis.”
“The Northern Lights,” I said.
While it’s not unheard of to see the Northern Lights that far south, it’s not nightly occurrence either. I know of at least two occasions where people have seen them, and I have a very old memory from when I was young of seeing something in the sky that might have been them. But being that young, I can’t say it was an accurate memory.
So what causes them?
It takes two things to generate the Northern (or Southern) Lights.
One is our local star, the Sun.
The other is this awesome force field that surrounds our little blue white planet called our Magnetic Field. This latter is absolutely essential not only to generate this display, but for life to even exist here.
Looking just a few million miles away at Mars, we see what can happen to a world that doesn’t have a magnetic field. Current theories suggest that Mars was very much like Earth, with surface water and a decent atmosphere. But along the way, it (probably due to cooling of the core) it lost its protective magnetic bubble. This opened it up full force to the Solar Wind. That stripped the atmosphere away, causing Mars to become the cold, desolate world it is today.
Without our protective magnetic field, we wouldn’t be here today.
Anyway, I digress.
How are the Northern Lights created?
Well, they start on the Sun.
Our Sun isn’t a placid well behaved place. Granted, it’s better than some stars, but worse than others. We get storms on the Sun. These aren’t earthly storms, but incredibly violent events that often hurl material out into space.
We call these Coronal Mass Ejections (CME), and they are dangerous events. Astronauts are often forced to take cover in the best protected areas of the Space Station, and it’s a major concern for travel to the Moon, Mars, or anywhere beyond the confines of Earth.
They become a danger when they hit us. Fortunately the magnetic field of the Earth spares us from most of it. It’s the interaction between our field and the CME that causes the incredible displays. depending on the size, these displays can last days, and the more energetic they are, the further south the display might go.
So just how energetic could a CME be?
Well, they could be a threat to astronauts. A really bad storm could force the crew of the Space Station to abort and come home. It could be a threat to communication and GPS satellites.
It can even impact local radio reception and cause blackouts to the electrical grid.
One of the worst and earliest we have good records for occurred in September of 1859. They call this the Carrington Event, and Auroras were observed as far south as El Paso, Texas. Electricity was seen to arc off telegraph lines, and there are reports of telegraph operators being knocked across the room because of the current.
Some theorize if we encountered the same thing today, our global civilization could be in for a very bad time as computer systems crashed, the electrical grids were damaged, and communications systems damaged or destroyed. Some go so far as to say we’d find ourselves back in the 1800s within hours.
In May of 1967, a solar storm impacting us affected Military Radars in the U.S. and U.S.S.R. It appeared that the other side had launched a full nuclear strike at the other. Alert status put bombers in the air, and missiles were readied for launch. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and Doomsday was avoided.
The Northern Lights can be an incredibly beautiful but deadly display.
It’s for these very reasons NASA, ESA, and a host of space agencies and observatories keep a close watch on the Sun.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Like my blog and stories, check out my novels available on Amazon. I have two out right now, The Cross and the Badge, and Against Flesh and Blood. A third novel, The Judas Tree will be coming out soon. Click on the novel names, or the pictures of the covers above to be taken straight to them.
As always, thanks for dropping by and for your support. God Bless.
Historical storms: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_solar_storms
This site has a great video that explains it all: https://www.amnh.org/explore/videos/space/space-weather-storms-from-the-sun