You might be able to see the Northern Lights in the US tonight - here's where

A geomagnetic storm is coming

Emily Shugerman
New York
Sunday 06 May 2018 17:21
How are northern lights are created?

People in the northern reaches of the US may be treated to a dazzling lights show this weekend, courtesy of the Northern Lights.

The Northern Lights, also known as the 'Aurora borealis,' are a natural phenomenon that appear as a wash of pink, green, blue and purple across the night sky.

The lights are usually only visible near the north pole, where they originate. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting a G1 geomagnetic storm this weekend, which may make the Northern Lights more visible than usual in some parts of the US.

It’s also one of the last times the lights will be this intense for more than a decade. That’s because the sun – which produces the particles that cause the lights – is entering a period of lower activity known as “solar minimum”. Sightings of the lights will be much less frequent during this period, according to experts.

Below is all the information you need to make the most out of this viewing opportunity.

What causes the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights occur when gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere collide with charged particles from the sun's atmosphere. The molecules then become excited, causing them to glow.

The different colours of the display are caused by different molecules: Oxygen causes the yellow, red, and green lights, while nitrogen causes the blue and purple ones.

Because the earth's magnetic field line pulls the solar particles toward the poles, the northern lights are most often seen within a few hundred miles of the magnetic north pole, which includes places like northern Scandinavia, northern Canada, and the northern coast of Siberia.

A woman sits on a pier to watch northern lights on the Lofoten Islands, in Bostad, in the arctic circle in northern Norway

Why can you see them in the US this weekend?

Fan of the Northern Lights might be able to see the display from some areas of the US this weekend, thanks to a solar storm headed towards Earth.

The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Centre is predicting a G1 (Minor) geomagnetic storm this weekend, caused by the sun ejecting about a billion tons of superheated plasma into the atmosphere. These types of storms often cause solar flares, causing the aurora borealis to shine brighter, and making it visible from areas farther from the pole.

And no, the solar storm won’t hurt you.

Northern Lights dazzle in US

Where can you see the Northern Lights this weekend?

Though it’s not guaranteed, the anticipated magnetic storm could make the lights more visible from northern US states like Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.

The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, however, is predicting the lights will only be visible as far south as southeast Alaska.

When is the best time to see them?

Generally, the best time to see the lights is in the evening, when the sky is dark. Experts recommend anywhere between 9.30 pm and 1 am local time as optimal viewing hours.

Before heading out, however, it’s best to consult with an online predictor like those run by the Geophysical Institute or NOAA to see when the lights will be most active in your area.

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