Saturday, January 11, 2014

Misinformation Age : Northern Lights Edition

Aurora November 7, 2004

   This past week the Sun unleashed an X-1 class flare(X is the strongest class, X-1 is the weakest of X-class flares) in the general direction of Earth.  NOAA's space weather forecast center put the odds of an auroral display for the mid-latitudes (which includes all of Michigan) at 50% for the 24-hr forecast period.  The Detroit Free Press posted an article on their website that included  phrases like "could be visible", "might get a treat", "there is a possibility" all reflecting the uncertain nature of how particles cast off by the Sun will react with the Earth's magnetic field.   So why did the headline writers attach the headline "Solar Flare to bring Northern Lights over southeast Michigan tonight"  that made it sound like a sure thing?  Here is a link to the article.

  WDIV channel 4's website had an article that included the appropriate 'coulds','mays' and 'mights'.  Then they included a follow-up article that included a (cellphone?)photo that appears to show Light Pillars (vertical columns of light which are caused by ground lighting being reflected by horizontally faced ice crystals suspended in sub-zero air) and declared "We did get some Northern Lights".
  If the photo accompanying the article is an auroral display they scooped the whole skywatching community because no one else in the lower 48 states reported or submitted photos of the northern lights to 
   If there had been a display visible from southeast Michigan the aurora gallery of spaceweather(dot)com would have been flooded with photos from the northern tier of states.

  Nearly everyone says they want to see the Northern Lights,  but how badly do you want to see them?  You can't rely on news outlets.   You don't get birding tips from them so don't get your astronomy tips from them either. You have to research it yourself and a good place to start is the aforementioned 
  Once you figure out their forecasts, it only takes seconds to assess the probability of an auroral display.  Then when there is a 50% chance of a display in the next 24 hours you have to consider that at least half of those hours are either bright twilight or daylight, so your chances are now down to lower than 25%.  And if you're only going to check the sky in the evening (between 7 PM and midnight) your chances are down to 5/24 x 50%, or about 10%.  That 10% chance assumes you live away from a major metropolitan area where stray light washes away the contrast needed to make the aurora visible.  Contrast in  night sky can also be faded by bright moonlight.  So if most or all of the above apply the original 50% forecast is down to about 1%.

  This isn't rocket surgery, but it does take some effort.


  1. Im feeling you brother! Had the same conversation at work.Also they told me the reason for all the Snowy Owls down here was the Polar Vortex bringing them down from the Arctic,according to one of the News orgs.So wrong in so many ways.

  2. I saw an internet comment that said that the Polar Vortex was bringing the Northern Lights with it. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

  3. awesome aurora pic by the way.Pointe Moo?