Ask A Physical Chemist: Will Long-Term Climate Change Affect The Northern Lights? - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Ask A Physical Chemist: Will Long-Term Climate Change Affect The Northern Lights?

Ask A Physical Chemist: Will Long-Term Climate Change Affect The Northern Lights?

Published May 10, 2019

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Will long-term climate change affect the Northern Lights? We went straight to Dr. Helgi Rafn Hróðmarsson, a.k.a. The Cosmic Chemist, to find out.

Short answer: “No…Wait! Maybe.”

This will depend on what we call “long-term.” Humanity might not be around in a couple of hundred years because we treat our planet like a malformed baby wipe, but let’s consider that time period.

Man-made climate change pertains to greenhouse gas emissions, which change our atmosphere’s chemical composition, but not to the extent that changes in oxygen and nitrogen (99% of our atmosphere) would. These are the principal originators of the Northern Lights, so we need not worry about man-made climate change affecting the Northern Lights themselves.

Now, there is an established correlation between the Northern Lights and sunspots on the Sun’s surface. Sunspot activity follows an 11-year cycle, where the number fluctuates from just a few up to as high as 250 per annum. Axiomatically, Northern Light profusion is wholly dependent on the Sun cycle. 

Sunspot occurrence is tentatively linked with climate, as there have been several periods in history where minima in sunspots were observed and the average temperatures on Earth were unquestionably lower. These minima, however, coincided with large volcanic eruptions which spouted out gases that reflected sunlight and cooled our climate.

In summary, global warming will not affect the Northern Lights themselves. However, climate change in terms of cloud formation can easily block out the sky and make Northern Light hunts more scarce. Less frequent Northern Lights are indeed observed during minima in the solar cycle, but whether that will be the case when the minima accompanies climate change is still up for debate.

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