The Northern Lights May Be Visible Over Parts of the U.S. on Halloween Weekend
The northern lights might be visible Saturday morning and night.
The nights are getting colder, but they aren't so cold yet that you wouldn't step outside to cross something off your bucket list. Especially if that item usually requires you to go out in the snow. If that makes sense to you, you may want to attempt seeing the northern lights this weekend, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC).
The SWPC has issued a geomagnetic storm warning for the night of October 30. A coronal mass ejection (CME) on October 28 could result in elevated auroral activity on October 30 into the morning of Halloween. The warning is a G3, a "strong" watch level in the SWPC system.
The watches are a measure of solar activity arriving at the Earth's atmosphere. Among other things, that activity can result in auroral displays. When the activity is particularly strong, you might see the northern lights creep further south than it is generally seen. For instance, inside the United States.
Though, it's important to note that those forecasts are not guarantees. The situation can change and beyond that, sometimes you just don't see the aurora for other reasons. It's difficult to predict the presence of the northern lights with certainty.
Still, the SWPC lists one of the possible results of the CME as the aurora being visible "as low as Pennsylvania to Iowa to Oregon." Spaceweather.com writes, " Such storms can spark naked-eye auroras as far south as Illinois and Oregon (typically 50° geomagnetic latitude) and photographic auroras at even lower latitudes."
That's pretty far south for the aurora borealis. Though, if the forecast does not change, that still means that the further north you go, the greater your chances of seeing the display.
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 if you will. At the time of publication, the SWPC's forecast projects the G3—the strongest part of this storm—to arrive from 5 pm to 8 pm ET on October 30. Depending on where you are, that could mean that it's too light out for you to take advantage of the strongest part of the storm.
Nonetheless, the watch goes on throughout the night and into the early hours of Halloween. A G2 watch is in effect from 8 pm to 11 am ET, followed by a less powerful G1 watch from 2 am until the early morning hours of Halloween. Again, that's just the forecast at the time of publication. (The breakdown was even different on the night of October 28 than it was on the morning of October 29.) Things can and will likely change. 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.
For the best view, you need to get away from light pollution, which is harder than many people realize. You need a very dark sky. It's unlikely you'll see the aurora in a city, let alone a major urban hub like Detroit, even though it is within the potential range of the aurora per the SWPC. The further you are from city lights, the better your chances. This Light Pollution Map or the Dark Site Finder may help you locate an area with dark skies near you.
You'll also need the weather to cooperate, or you're out of luck. 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.
The key to crossing the northern lights off of your bucket list is persistence and patience. Once you're in your spot of choice, you're going to 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 your chance 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. However, this solar event has many aurora enthusiasts excited, so cross your fingers and get out there.