The Northern Lights May Be Visible Over the U.S. This Week

Strong solar activity has the potential to bring the northern lights down over the US.

The northern lights aren't something you typically hunt in the summer when there is less darkness at night. Those dark skies are necessary to see the bucket list phenomenon.  So, this week's situation is a bit unique.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) predicts "a strong geomagnetic storm" to arrive at Earth on August 18 and 19. It has issued a geomagnetic storm watch through the latter date. 

The forecast projects a G3 storm, considered strong on the SWPC's scales, for August 18 and a not insignificant G2 storm for August 19. Those are strong enough to potentially bring the aurora to the skies over the continental United States on both notes. That's much further south than you typically see the northern lights. 

SWPC forecasters say it is monitoring "a series of Coronal Mass Ejections (CME)" that began on August 14. As that increased solar activity arrives at Earth, it can trigger more brilliant and widespread auroral activity. 

As ever, the northern lights are fickle. Forecasts are not guarantees. Still, it means that the stars are aligning in your favor if you're hoping to get out and see the incredible display. notes that a G3 has the potential to bring the northern lights relatively far south. "During such storms, naked-eye auroras can descend into the USA as far south as Illinois and Oregon (geomagnetic latitude 50 degrees)," it writes.  

That means there's a possibility of seeing the aurora in all or parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, in addition to all of Canada. Though for states further south like Illinois, Indiana, or Nebraska, you're really looking at the northern portion of the state, and the aurora would need to be strong. 

The above video gives a sense of what the aurora borealis looks like over the US during a G1 watch. The video was shot in Graceville, Minnesota on September 26, 2020. Under these circumstances, you might not have the brilliant ribbons of bright light you'll find in, say, Iceland or Sweden, but the display is still moving. 

How To See the Northern Lights

There are a lot of variables that have to come together for the aurora to appear. Nothing can guarantee the lights will show up on any given night. However, things look promising. Reports indicate that your best bet is going out on August 18 or 19.

The current forecast shows the strongest part of the storm arriving on the night of August 18. There's a G2 in effect at sunset ET, which rises to a G3 at 11 pm ET. The viewing isn't forecast to be as good on August 19 with a G2 in effect from 8-11 pm and a less significant G1 watch starting at 11 pm. 

It's important to note, however, that the forecast can change. There are resources worth checking before you head out to make sure you're giving yourself the best shot at catching the lights. A site like Aurorasaurus, the SWPC's 30-minute forecast, or resources like Space Weather Watch on Twitter are good places to keep an eye on for updates closer to real-time.

As always, the further north you are, the better your chance of seeing the display. An SWPC representative previously told Thrillist, "You need very clear skies, a good view of the northern horizon (no trees, buildings, or hills), and it needs to be dark." If you're near the southern edge of where the northern lights appear, you're most likely to see it low along the northern horizon. 

You'll need to get away from light pollution and under dark skies to see the aurora. You are not likely to see much if you're in any city, especially a big city inside the forecast range like Detroit, Minneapolis, or Boston. This Light Pollution Map or the Dark Site Finder may help you locate an area with dark skies near you. (There are great stargazing locations that aren't far from big cities.)

To tic the northern lights off your bucket list, you'll need some patience. Just because the aurora isn't there at one moment, doesn't mean it won't appear soon. Likewise, if it's there in the moment, it might not be for long. 

The northern lights are visible in the northern US from time to time, but that does not mean you should take an opportunity like this for granted. Get out there and look up.

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow Dustin on Twitter.