Northern Lights: Northern US, Canada will see aurora borealis – USA TODAY

Northern Lights: Northern US, Canada will see aurora borealis - USA TODAY
A rare solar storm may bring the Northern Lights south to the US
At least it might if you live in Canada, parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Michigan, Maine, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, according to The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF)s Geophysical Institutes aurora forecast.

In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations Space Weather Prediction Center suggests that the aurora borealis — or Northern Lights — could be visible as far south as Iowa and Colorado. 

As a result, the northern lights, which are usually only visible in places like Alaska, Norway, or Iceland, will be able to be seen from lower latitudes, including New York, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Washington state.

This relatively rare event can be tracked to March 20 when a powerful eruption of solar energy sent an unusually large stream of electrically charged particles streaming toward Earth.

The weather prediction center issued a geomagnetic storm watch on Wednesday after detecting a small solar flare, a high-energy burst fired by a sunspot, that was followed by a coronal mass ejection (CME).

Normally, such particles simply collide with gas particles in Earths atmosphere and put on their colorful display, much like the glow of a neon light. Oxygen molecules give off a familiar, ghostly green aurora, while nitrogen produces blue or red.

When the CME hits Earth, all those particles colliding with Earth’s magnetic field could turn up the range and the intensity of the aurora, also known as the northern and southern lights.

While no cause of alarm for personal safety, or even the sensitive North American power grids, the arrival of this potent burst of energy can trigger a geomagnetic storm and disrupt the delicate balance around the poles.

The storm, in turn, pushes the swirling aurora off course, driving it southward for as long as three days and putting on its magic show.

Skies will have to be clear to see the stunning spectacle. Experts recommend getting as far away from cities or urban areas as possible as pollution can hinder your view.

Theres no guarantee, either on the timing or the conditions for colorful display, but for the best view, look to the east Saturday night before midnight, as the aurora rises, or to the west after midnight. Warning: this only works if the skies are clear and dark.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what time the CME will reach Earth. For updates, visit the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Another warning: Dont expect aurora borealis to put on a dazzling show farther south, where it might appear as only a glow on the horizon in places like Detroit and Chicago. 

In Chicago, Michelle Nichols, the director of public observing at Adler Planetarium, tells Time Out Chicago there are any variables to contend with.

“Theres no one place [or time] we can tell people to look, theres no one place we can tell people to go,” says Nichols. “If you want to take a chance, go far from the city, where youre farther away from light pollution.”

Theres a chance the aurora borealis light show will be on full-display for observers across Montana, Minnesota, Michigan and New York, according to the University of Alaska Fairbankss Geophysical Institute aurora forecast Saturday.

Other regions further south may also get a glimpse of the color-filled spectacle, the institute found. Wyoming, Nebraska, and Indiana are projected to have low visibility, and even Annapolis, Maryland, may get glimmers of the lights.

Typically the lights are reserved for observers in the northern latitudes across Alaska, Canada, and Scandinavia. But this weekend the aurora borealis is making a relatively rare appearance across large swaths of the US thanks to a solar flare, or an influx of charged particles, that erupted on March 20.

Saturdays aurora forecast from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF)s Geophysical Institute. Auroras generally occur when charged particles from the sun form a fast-moving cloud. When these particles crash into Earths atmosphere, they release energy in the form of light, which most commonly appears as shimmering green, though it may also blend into hues of blue and red-purple depending on the altitude and the types of gases with which the particles collide. Solar flares, like the one that occurred on March 20, may supercharge the auroras glow so that its visibility extends farther than usual.

On Saturday, the Space Weather Prediction Center issued a moderate geomagnetic storm watch, which increases the likelihood of an intensified Northern Lights. Depending on if or when the particles collide with the Earths magnetic field, the Northern Lights may be bright enough to spot as far south as Iowa and Colorado.

Still, theres a chance the storm may not be entirely visible to any of these regions in the US. The ideal conditions for such an effect require clear and dark skies, which means that rural star-gazers will likely have an easier time spotting the lights than most city dwellers. It also doesnt help that the near-full moon Saturday night may obscure visibility.

Tonights #aurora storm is perfect for kids: best time is after sunset, before moonrise. So a “not-too-late” night + not a school night. Set expectations: theres a 50/50 chance the the storm is a no-go. Take them #stargazing, and if the #NorthernLights dance, BONUS!

For the best results, the UAF Geophysical Institute recommends looking out for the aurora three to four hours before midnight.

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