Experiencing the magnificent aurora borealis, or northern lights, usually requires booking a flight to Iceland, Canada, Alaska, or Scandinavia. But this week, the atmospheric phenomenon is coming to the lower 48 as far south as southern Montana, Minnesota, and Maine.
What Is An Aurora Borealis
Auroras happen many days of the year, but the ones that people boast about on social media generally occur during a geomagnetic storm which begins with increased solar activity. The Canadian Space Agency simplifies the scientific phenomenon explaining that “Earth’s magnetic field forms an invisible shield that protects the planet from solar wind.”
“From time to time, the solar wind gets stronger and penetrates Earth’s magnetic field,” continues the Canadian Space Agency. “The stream of particles interacts with gasses in the magnetic field (the magnetosphere), generating magnificent auroras.”
Who Can See The Northern Lights
A Kp index is used to measure geomagnetic activity levels and ranges from 0 to 9. The prediction for this Wednesday and Thursday had been a 5 and 6 respectively, but now both days are a 4. According to NOAA, a 4 means “the aurora will move further from the poles. It will become brighter and there will be more auroral activity (motion and formations).”
Scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Geophysical Institute say active displays could be seen on Thursday over Alaska and Canada. They may also be visible low on the horizon in the northern United States including parts of Washington State, Idaho, Montana, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York State, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Tips For Viewing The Northern Lights
A powerful geomagnetic storm is the first piece of a great northern lights experience puzzle, but here are other tips to consider to give yourself the best opportunity to see them.
Get Away From City Lights
There’s the term “light pollution” for a reason. Anyone living in a city may forget how dark it can be once you head out into the country, but it’s necessary if you want to see the aurora borealis.
Check The Weather
Clear skies are imperative. Clouds and northern lights aren’t a good mix, so check the forecast.
Activity Usually Peaks Around Midnight
According to NOAA, 1 or 2 hours before or after 12 a.m. (local time) is often the best time to see the northern lights. However, “these hours of active aurora expand towards evening and morning as the level of geomagnetic activity increases.”
The Moon Can Affect The Apparent Brightness
This week, it will be a waning crescent moon, which is good news for everyone trying to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. If you find yourself traveling to see them at other times of the year, check which phase the moon will be in before you book your trip. A full moon will make the aurora appear less bright.
Download The Apps
There are several apps available that can alert you to when there may be an opportunity to view the northern lights in your area. My Aurora Forecast & Alerts and Aurora Borealis Forecast & Alerts are both good options. NOAA also offers a 30-minute future cast of aurora activity.
It Must Be Dark
This may seem obvious, but the farther north you go, the more daylight there is in the summer. There can be aurora activity happening in places known for amazing northern lights all year long, but in Iceland for example, there’s also about 19 hours of daylight every day in July. Even if something is happening, you’re not likely to see it.
Where And When Is The Best Time To See The Northern Lights
NOAA says Alaska and western Canada, away from the coasts, statistically have the most days of clear skies throughout the year. In the spring, Iceland and Scandinavia have a great opportunity for clear skies as well. The aurora activity is also greatest near the spring and fall equinoxes. And remember, it needs to be dark. A full moon may be beautiful but not when trying to see the northern lights. With all of that in mind, NOAA says visiting Iceland or Scandinavia during the new moon in March is statistically the best chance to see the northern lights during the year.