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The Northern Lights Are Heading South? Here's Why

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A new study conducted by Columbia University suggests that the famous northern lights of the Arctic may be heading south in the coming decades as a result of the weakening magnetic field of the Earth.

Researchers at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have discovered that as the magnetic field of the planet continues to weaken, waves of charged particles known as solar winds will likely be affected as well in how they bounce off of this field.

The team believes this will cause the northern lights, also known as aurora borealis, to shift southward from the Arctic and appear more frequently in parts of Canada and even in the United States.

"The Earth's magnetic field more or less keeps the solar wind at bay, and it's the solar wind interacting with the field that contributes to the auroras," Dennis Kent, paleomagnetism expert at Columbia and one of the authors of the study, explained.

"With a strong field, that interaction is pushed to high latitudes. With a weaker field more of the Earth is bathed in these charged particles."

Kent added that one consequence of such a phenomenon would be to have auroras appear more often in regions at lower latitudes. The southern lights, or aurora australis, could also experience a similar shift in movement, this time northwards.

Evidence of the shifting of the northern lights have already become more visible in recent times, such as the more frequent occurrence of auroras in areas such as Ottawa, where the atmospheric event can be seen occasionally.

The Columbia University study investigates how the magnetic field of the Earth is starting to weaken.

The researchers found that even though the field has reached unusually high levels of strength in the past, it is now beginning to recede toward its long-term average. Their findings show that the planet's magnetic field has weakened by as much as 10 percent in the past 20 years.

More importantly, the new study describes how this magnetic field is able to flip occasionally, causing the Earth's north and south poles to reverse.

Earlier research suggests that the planet has undergone reversals of polarity hundreds of times before in the last 100 million years. The most recent flip occurred around 780,000 years ago.

Some scientists predict that during the ongoing weakening of the magnetic field, it could become unstable and trigger a polarity reversal once again.

Kent and his colleagues, however, said such an event is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Despite the weakening of the current field, the research team estimates that it is still relatively stronger compared to the long-term average.

This will allow certain changes to take place without causing the Earth's magnetic field to become unstable.

The findings of the Columbia University study are featured in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Photo: Moyan Brenn | Flickr 

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