The Northern Lights May Be Visible Over the U.S. Tonight. Here's How to See It.
The Orionid meteor shower has already made it a hell of a good week for stargazing. But it's going to get better. The northern lights are likely to appear over the northern United States the night of Thursday, October 24.
The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued a G1 geomagnetic storm watch for Thursday evening when a stream of solar wind is forecast to crash into the Earth's atmosphere. A G1 alert is the lowest level of their alert system, so there's enough activity to be noteworthy, but it's still a relatively minor geomagnetic event. The end result is that the northern lights are likely to be stronger than usual in northern regions where they frequently appear, and the aurora has a good chance of being seen further south than usual.
That's splendid news for everyone in the northern US. They might get the opportunity to cross the phenomenon off their bucket list.
The SWPC has issued a map that shows the potential southern reach of the aurora during the G1 event. The map is a little small, but the green line is the important one in this instance. The area with the potential for a soirée with the aurora is everything north of that line, including northern Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine. That's in addition to Alaska and the vast majority of Canada.
Of course, forecasting the northern lights can be tricky. Sometimes the conditions are right, and the aurora doesn't appear. Other times a minor storm brings incredibly intense lights, and they even appear further south than projected.
The video above will give you a sense of what the aurora borealis could look like over the US during a G1 watch. It was shot over the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan during a similar event last year. 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 stunning.
How To See the Northern Lights
Many variables come together when the aurora appears, but the alert means things are aligning in your favor. The SWPC's 3-Day Forecast projects the G1 alert will begin at 2pm EST the night of October 24 and run until 8am on the morning of October 25, with a lull between 8pm and 11pm. Of course, the northern lights are only visible when it's dark outside, so the early hours of the alert aren't much use for aurora hunters. That may mean that your best bet is to get out sometime after 11pm EST. Sunset will be a little after 6pm on the east coast, per Time & Date, but you need it to be very dark outside before you start aurora hunting.
For the best viewing experience, get out of the city to a rural area far from light pollution. The further you are from lights, the better. Even the moon can provide interference. Fortunately, there won't be a ton of obstruction from the waning crescent moon this go-round, which won't rise until around 3:30am.
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 the northern horizon rather than directly overhead. You'll also need favorable weather because you aren't going to see them through the clouds.
The key to crossing the incredible display off your bucket list is persistence and patience. Once you're in your spot of choice, you will need to be patient and keep your eyes on the sky. Just because it's not there one moment doesn't mean that it couldn't be there soon.
You'll see the northern lights pop up from time to time in the northern US, but it doesn't happen often. As SpaceWeather.com notes, it's been 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 when the sun is less active.) That solar activity is key to the presence of the northern lights. (Get a full explanation of how that works here.)
It might be a weeknight, but you never know when you'll get the opportunity again. Plus, you might even catch the tail end of a meteor shower while you're out there looking up.