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The Northern Lights Will Be Visible Over the U.S. Tonight. Here's How to See It.

northern lights forecast
The northern lights over Iceland. | Shutterstock.com
The northern lights over Iceland. | Shutterstock.com

The worst winter weather is yet to come. You should take advantage of the not-as-terrible weather while it's available. Hold onto your butts, a good excuse is coming this week. On the night of November 20, the northern lights are likely to appear over parts of the northern United States

The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued a G1 geomagnetic storm watch for Wednesday, November 20 into early (very early) Thursday morning. (A day too early for you to see it alongside a major meteor storm.) A G1 is the lowest level of the NOAA agency's alert system, meaning there's enough solar wind activity to make it a noteworthy event, but it remains relatively minor. This all adds up to, among other things, a stronger than usual chance of the aurora borealis popping up further south than it normally appears. (In northern regions where the aurora appears more frequently, it may appear with increased intensity.)

northern lights tonight
Courtesy of the SWPC

The SWPC has not issued a new map to show the potential southern reach of the lights during this G1 watch. However, this map from October can provide a sense of what you're looking for. Everything north of the green line is the region to focus on during a G1 event, including northern Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine, as well as Alaska and most of Canada. Though, for the latter two, this isn't all too unusual of an event.

Of course, forecasting the aurora can be tricky since there are so many variables at play. Sometimes the conditions are right, and it never arrives. At other times, a minor storm brings intense, dancing lights. Nonetheless, the stars are aligning in your favor when a watch like this is issued.

The video above shows the aurora over Michigan's Mackinac Bridge during a G1 watch last year. You might not find the brilliant ribbons of bright light you'll find in, say, Iceland or Sweden, but the display is nonetheless moving.

How To See the Northern Lights

The SWPC's 3-Day Forecast projects the G1 watch to land between 11pm on Wednesday and 2am on Thursday. The moon will be quite bright that night when it rises a bit after midnight. So, the early end of the SWPC's window is probably your best bet for quality viewing. The lights can certainly be visible after moonrise, but all other things being equal, they'll look more spectacular prior to any interference from the moon. 

To get the best experience, get out of the city, away from light pollution that will minimize your view of the lights and the stars above. Additionally, 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." For viewers in the US, the northern lights are most likely to sit along the northern horizon rather than directly overhead.

The key to crossing the display off your bucket list is persistence and patience. Get out there and don't stop looking. If it's not there at the moment, there's nothing that says it won't be in a couple of minutes. If it's there right now, it could be gone in a flash.

The aurora is occasionally visible in the northern US. However, if you haven't seen it, it's not worth ignoring an opportunity. As SpaceWeather.com has noted, it was a "summer without sunspots." The rarity of sunspots from June 21 to September 22 means there's been less aurora activity than there has been in other years. (That's partly because we are at a point in the solar cycle where the sun is less active.) Solar activity is the key to the presence of the northern lights. (Get a full explanation of how that works here.)

It's a school night, but you're not in school anymore. (Ahem. Probably.) Get out there and just have an extra cup of coffee at work on Thursday. It'll be worth it. (Plus, you can get a free coffee in the afternoon to help you make it through the day.)

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.