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

Like the skies over King's Landing, there are going to be dazzling lights over parts of the US. The northern lights will make a journey south the night of Wednesday, May 15.

northern lights today
Shutterstock.com

Like the skies over King's Landing following the arrival of Daenerys, there are going to be dazzling (albeit significantly less terrifying) lights over parts of the United States this week. The northern lights will make a journey south the morning of May 15, as well as the night of May 16 into the morning of May 17.

The Space Weather Prediction Center has issued geomagnetic storm alerts varying between G1 and G2 levels because of a series of three Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) since May 10 -- the effects of which are anticipated to have the northern lights appearing further south than they are usually seen.

"In order to create northern or southern lights, you need a source of charged particles, and that source is the sun," says Sam Sampere, a physics lab manager at Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences. "The sun is always spewing out particles. The number that the sun spews out is not all that great, but sometimes the sun has little explosions and those charged particles are aimed directly at the Earth. That’s what happened a few days ago."

northern lights tonight May 2019
Courtesy of the Space Weather Prediction Center

The alert from the SWPC, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was issued along with the map above. It shows the area where the aurora could potentially reach. The map is a little small, but the green line is what you should be looking for with a G1 alert, while any window with a G2 alert could reach as far south as the yellow line.

The means you could see the spectacular display in parts of Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine. As is often the case, you should also be able to see a very good show in Alaska, which is among the best places in the world for aurora hunters. During a G2 alert, you might also catch a glimpse in parts Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

This video shows the aurora borealis over Michigan's Mackinac Bridge in early 2018 after a G1 alert. The northern lights are beautifully present, but this far south, you're unlikely to find the brilliant ribbons of colorful lights crackling across the sky like you might find in, say, Iceland. (For a good example of well-defined streaks of light, check out this "Dragon Aurora" spotted in Iceland.)

How To See the Northern Lights

Per the SWPC's 3-Day Forecast, the best time to look for the northern lights will be through a couple of separate windows. The first is 5am to 11am EST on Wednesday, May 15. This could be a decent opportunity further west at the outset of the window when it is still dark outside. The Kp index prior to that window is only slightly lower, so you may even catch a glimpse leading into that time frame. However, as it gets light outside, the display will no longer be visible, rendering the latter portion of the alert useless for anyone hoping to see the aurora.

The second window is from 11am EST on May 16 to 5am on May 17. At various times, that entire stretch has been under a G1 alert, with the exception of a three-hour window where there's a G2. Unfortunately, it will be too light out to see the aurora in the US during the three hours under a G2 alert. The best time will be from 11pm EST to 5am. That time frame is under a G1 alert and should provide good viewing down to the green line on the map above. 

To get the best view, you will need to get far from the light pollution of urban centers. If the aurora makes it all the way to the green line, it's still unlikely you'll spot it in a big city. Talking about the best conditions for watching the aurora, 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 view is necessary because, outside of far-north regions, the lights will largely appear on the northern horizon rather than directly overhead.

This is a great opportunity to cross the spectacle off your bucket list. Plus, you'll get quality outdoor time. That's good. You've been sitting inside a bit too much lately.

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer on the news team at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.