Nature’s greatest light show, the Northern Lights, or Aurora borealis, is set to make a glorious return, and millions of Americans could be in the audience. The reason, well, here’s the science.
Why It’s Happening
According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, earlier this week, a solar flare erupted on the sun, causing a coronal mass ejection, or CME, to head toward the earth. As the CME moves toward us, and us toward it, the result becomes an electromagnetic storm, which becomes visible as the Northern Lights.
NOAA has even issued a Geomagnetic Storm Watch.
Where You Can See Them
The Northern Lights should be visible to anyone living in the northern states, from Maine in the east to Washington in the west. There was speculation that the power of the storm would allow states a bit further south, such as Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas, to see the lights, but NOAA reports that the Planetary K Index, which is used to determine the disruption in the earth’s magnetic field, is lower than expected.
The electromagnetic storm is expected to continue to grow and reach its maximum potential on Thursday, so tonight may be the best opportunity to see the lights. You can track NOAA’s Storm Alerts here.
How To See Them
The Space Weather Prediction Center says the aurora is not visible during daylight hours and does not need to be directly overhead to be visible. If the Planetary K Index is strong enough, and your local weather conditions call for clear skies, you should just need to face the northern horizon between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. to see the lights.
Dress warmly and choose a location possibly away from city lights with darker skies. Bright city lights make it difficult to see the aurora.
According to the Northern Light Centre, the visible colors can vary, but pale green and pink are the most common. Look for shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet as well.
“The lights appear in many forms, from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow,” said NLC online.
If you’re planning on trying to take photographs of the Northern Lights, either with DSLR, or even your smartphone, there are ways to ensure you get the best pictures possible.
Photography experts in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the lights are common, suggest the following for cameras:
Try downloading apps designed to help, such as Northern Lights Photo Taker, Cortex Camera, or NightCap Pro.
If possible, adjust the settings for a 2-15 second exposure and ISO to 400-1600.
Turn off your flash.
Tap screen to focus on the lights.
Set to night mode, if your phone has it.
Set to manual mode, if your phone has it.
Set your exposure between 6-10 seconds.
Set the ISO to 1600 and adjust as needed.
Set your aperture of the lens to wide open.
Use a wide-angle lens and set it to infinity focus.