How to Watch the Northern Lights in the U.S. This Week

A solar storm this week means the Northern Lights are taking a trip south. The celestial display, also known as the Aurora Borealis, is expected to be visible in more than a dozen U.S. states on Thursday night, according to the Aurora forecast from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.

Update: July 10, 3:58 p.m. ET: An article from Earth Sky contests the forecasts offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute. We are currently following up on these claims and will revise this article should an updated be warranted. 

Original article follows.

The Kp-index, a global measure of geomagnetic activity, goes from zero to nine. On July 13, it is expected to hit six. Anything above a four is considered a storm, and a six is considered a “moderate storm.” If the weather cooperates and the skies are clear, people across the northern half of the U.S. should be able to get a peak of the colorful phenomenon.

From northeast Washington and Montana to South Dakota, Michigan, and Maine—the Aurora is expected to be visible overhead. For those even farther south—from Oregon and Nebraska to Indiana and Maryland— the lights will be visible on the horizon. Of course, most of Canada will also be treated to the juiced-up sky show.

“Auroral activity will be high(+),” wrote the University of Fairbanks in a statement. “Weather permitting, highly active auroral displays will be visible overhead from Inuvik, Yellowknife, Rankin and Iqaluit to Vancouver, Helena, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Bay City, Toronto, Montpelier, and Charlottetown, and visible low on the horizon from Salem, Boise, Cheyenne, Lincoln, Indianapolis and Annapolis.”

The Aurora Borealis is caused by the interplay of charged particles in the polar regions of Earth’s atmosphere and our planet’s magnetic field. Solar storms create solar wind, which can unleash a stream of charged particles and plasma (called a coronal mass ejection) strong enough to penetrate and pull Earth’s magnetic field. When that field inevitably springs back into place, it creates ripples of energy that excite gas molecules in the upper reaches of our atmosphere.

Those high-energy particles, traveling along magnetic waves, create the appearance of colorful glowing curtains or streaks in the sky. The stronger the solar storm, the more visible an Aurora event will be in more places. The glimpses of the Northern Lights down south this week are bound to be exciting but don’t expect spectacular sky-filling sheets of light in Annapolis, Maryland. Likely, the Aurora Borealis will show up in farther-afield locales as a more subtle show.

In addition to clear skies, Aurora hunters should seek to find somewhere away from light pollution, ideally as far above sea level as possible, to get the best view. Between 10 P.M. and 2 A.M. are the typical peak hours for your highest chances of witnessing the eye-catching display, according to the National Space Weather Prediction Center, but local timing will depend on when the sun sets.

This week’s burst of solar activity is bigger than average, but it’s not entirely out of the ordinary. An 11-year solar cycle is expected to peak in 2024, so in recent months there’s been more Aurora Borealis news than normal. In April, the Northern Lights were visible as far south as Arizona due to a severe solar storm that even carried the potential to disrupt the power grid and spacecraft. In August 2022, another lesser storm event brought the Aurora down to Maine and parts of Michigan.

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