The Northern Lights May Be Visible Over the U.S. on Wednesday Night

Eruptions on the sun have created conditions that could lead to the northern lights being visible in the northern US.

northern lights forecast march 2022
Photo by basiczto/Shutterstock

The northern lights tend not to be something we're out hunting in the summer. That's partly because the best places in the world to see the northern lights are in areas where there's a lot of sunlight and very little darkness, if any, during the summer. So, that makes this week's event a bit of a unique opportunity to potentially catch the northern lights when it's not freezing outside.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has put out a G3 geomagnetic storm watch for the night of March 30 into the morning of March 31. In the SWPC's watch system, a G3 watch is for a strong geomagnetic storm. That is strong enough that, if it arrives and behaves as projected, it could bring auroral activity further south than it is usually seen, meaning you might be able to see it across the northern parts of the US. 

The SWPC says that the initial watch was due to a coronal mass ejection (CME). That was followed by "a second, faster" CME that was able to catch the first. This is sometimes referred to as a cannibal CME. The effect of this can "drive the aurora further equatorward of its polar home," the SWPC says in its alert. "Aurora may be visible over the northern tier states if the conditions are favorable."

Though, forecasts are not guarantees. There are a boatload of reasons that a forecast projecting the arrival of the northern lights could wind up not working in your favor. \The northern lights are difficult to predict with certainty. Hunting for them requires some patience and persistence.

A map from Space Weather Watch suggests that if the CME hits with as much strength as possible, the line of the aurora's southern reach could be as far south as Chicago and Des Moines, Olympia in the west, and Boston in the east. Though, that definitely does not mean you'll see the northern lights in Chicago and Boston. Light pollution will prevent that.

That map projects visibility in all or parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, in addition to all of Canada.

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 the night of 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 nonetheless moving. 

How To See the Northern Lights

Many variables have to align for the aurora to make an appearance. Nothing can guarantee the lights will show up on any given night, but these forecasts mean the stars are aligning in your favor. The SWPC's forecast has the strongest portion of the alert arrives at 8 pm ET on the night of March 30. That G3 (kp: 7) watch lasts for three hours before a six-hour period of a slightly weaker, but still strong G2 watch.

On the night of March 31, there's a short window in the evening just after sunset, when the northern lights may be visible again. Though, the forecast for that evening isn't expected to be as strong or reach as far south. The SWPC forecast has a G1 watch for 8 to 11 pm ET and a G2 watch from 11 pm to 2 am. 

That means there's only a short window early in the evening of March 30 when the forecast suggests it could hit that southernmost line, but people further north may have the chance to see the aurora even later into the night. SpaceWeather.com says to head out of nightfall local time in the US and Canada if you're inside the region where the northern lights might appear. Though, timing can change. It's an unpredictable phenomenon. 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.

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." The northern lights, seen this far south, will likely be visible along that horizon rather than directly overhead.

For the best view, get away from light pollution, which is harder than you might realize. You need a dark sky to see the aurora. It's unlikely you'll see it in a city, let alone a hub like Detroit, Chicago, Boston, or Seattle, even though those cities are within the potential range of the aurora. The further you are from light pollution, the better your chances of seeing whatever is up there. 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.)

The key to crossing the northern lights off of your bucket list is persistence and patience. You need to be patient and keep your eyes on the sky. Just because it's not there one moment doesn't mean that it won't be soon. Likewise, if you see it, that doesn't mean it's going to be around all night. It's a bit like whale watching in that way. You're never sure if you're going to see something even when the variables are lining up in your favor.

The northern lights are visible inside the US from time to time but don't take an opportunity for granted. It doesn't happen all that often, and even when it looks like things are aligning in your favor, it might not appear. Part of the joy is the thrill of the hunt (until, you know, it's not).

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners or easy stargazing road trips from big US cities.

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