Backyard Observatory

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

northern lights tonight

You might not live in one of the greenest cities in the US, but it could get a little greener tonight. The night of February 18, the northern lights are likely to make an appearance over parts of the northern US

The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued a last-minute G1 geomagnetic storm watch for the night. The alert was issued in response to a passing coronal mass ejection with the ability to supercharge the atmosphere and make the aurora visible further south than you'd typically see it, especially during a period of minimal solar activity. 

The G1 alert is the lowest level of alert the agency issues, but there's enough activity to make it a noteworthy event in the US.

northern lights tonight
Courtesy of the SWPC

Due to the alert coming late Tuesday night, the SWPC did not issue a new map to show the potential southern reach of the northern lights. However, an older map from the agency shows where you might be able to see the display. Everything north of the green line would see the northern lights if the conditions are right. That region includes 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 nearly as rare of an event.

Forecasting the northern lights is tricky at best, with quite a few variables involved. Sometimes it seems like the conditions are perfect and nothing appears. Other times, a minor storm triggers an unexpectedly intense auroral display. So, nothing is guaranteed. Nonetheless, things are working in favor of the aurora hunters with a watch like this. 

The video above features the aurora going its thing over Michigan's Mackinac Bridge during a G1 watch in 2018. You might not find the brilliant ribbons of bright light you'd see north of the Arctic Circle, but the display is nonetheless beautiful.

How To See the Northern Lights

The SWPC's forecast has the G1 alert in effect from 8pm to 2am EST Tuesday into Wednesday morning. Wherever you are, you won't see anything while the sun is still up. So, your best bet for quality viewing is to get out a bit after sundown. 

For the best experience, get away from the light pollution in cities. That will impair your ability to see any display that's there. 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. If the aurora isn't there, 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. You really have to stick with it.

The aurora is occasionally visible in the northern US. This isn't unprecedented, but it's absolutely worth getting out there if the conditions are right and there's no cloud cover in your area. If it appears, you will not regret bundling up and enjoying the show.

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