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Northern lights: coming to a sky near you?

TORONTO - The sky over Canada may be transformed overnight into dazzling waves of green and red, as solar eruptions heading for Earth could scatter the northern lights much further south than usual.

TORONTO - The sky over Canada may be transformed overnight into dazzling waves of green and red, as solar eruptions heading for Earth could scatter the northern lights much further south than usual.

It's difficult to predict the strength of the flares and how they will translate to the northern lights, but it's worth staying up late for a chance to glimpse the phenomenon normally limited to northern Canada, researchers say.

"I've seen many, many displays and they're magical," said McMaster University astronomy professor Doug Welch.

"There's something about them that's almost like there's nothing there, and yet there's dancing lights."

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said the sun sent four stronger-than-normal eruptions toward our planet early Sunday morning.

Those events happen fairly often on the sun, but it's rarer for them to be directed at the Earth, said astrophysicist Leon Golub. The light show could be visible around 2 a.m. Wednesday and last 24 hours — but the emphasis should be on the word "could," he said.

Golub, speaking from Cambridge, Mass., said viewing chances in the U.S. are probably limited to the northern states. But Welch said in Canada it may be possible to see them "any place where it's dark."

People in big cities likely won't be able to see anything, and still the best locations for viewing the northern lights will be farther north, Golub said. But it's not every day that southern Canadians can see the lights.

"They certainly are eerie," Golub said. "This strange, greenish-red glow in the sky and it waves around in curtains of light — it sort of feels mysterious."

The northern lights can take many different forms, depending on the strength of the solar eruption. The weakest forms show up as a slightly greenish, unmoving patch of light, Welch said.

"That's the most boring form," he said.

Large solar flares in the past have disrupted power grids and radio frequencies, but this one is not expected to, nor is it expected to pose any danger to life on Earth, Welch said.

Moderate strength flares can show up as an arc of green light across the sky, and stronger eruptions produce auroral curtains, he added.

That's a "spectacular" sight when the sky appears to be bathed in green and red lights that move every few seconds or minutes, giving the appearance they're dancing, he said.

The most active, but very rare, occurrences cover the whole sky, Welch said.

"They not only have shimmering colours, they also can have skies flaming," he said.

"It can look like there's synchronized flames across the sky ... It's quite something."

Solar flares are created when the sun "burps" and emits charged particles that reach the Earth in a day or two, Welch said. When those particles arrive they encounter the Earth's magnetic field and spiral down the magnetic poles — one of which is over the Arctic.

"When there's been one of these big mass ejections, what happens is that distorts the magnetic field," Welch said. "These charged particles end up coming down into the upper atmosphere."

 
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