The Northern Lights Will Be Visible Over the U.S. This Weekend. Here's How to See It.
It's been a busy week. To be fair, that's basically always true, but it's been tough to unglue yourself from social media and the absurd deluge of major news. Most people could probably use a little time away this weekend, even if that just means away from your screen of choice. So, why not go outside, enjoy the fall weather, and catch the northern lights, which should be visible over a large part of the northern United States this weekend.
The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued G1 and G2 geomagnetic storm watches for the nights of September 27 and 28.
"Geomagnetic activity is expected to rise on September 27th due to an increasingly disturbed solar wind field associated with effects of a positive polarity coronal hole high speed stream," the SWPC writes in its notice. "Geomagnetic activity is expected to escalate further in reaction to the elevated solar wind speed and likely reach G2 storm levels on Saturday, the 28th."
Here's the important part: There's an increased chance of seeing the northern lights further south than usual. Lucky us.
The map above, issued by the SWPC, reveals the potential southern reach of the aurora. It's difficult to see the details on a map that small, but you're looking at an area between the green and yellow lines during the G2 alert and as far south as the green line during a smaller G1 alert. (Times for those two alerts are below and being updated as more information become available.)
That area includes northern Idaho, northern Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, in addition to all of Alaska and Canada. Though, the northern lights aren't exactly a rare occurrence in Alaska and northern Canada.
The video above provides a sense of what the aurora borealis looks like over the US during a G1 watch. It was shot over the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan. 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 go into the appearance of the aurora, but the alert means the stars are aligning in your favor. At the time of publication, the SWPC's 3-Day Forecast projects a minimum of a G1 alert running from 2pm EST on September 27 through 8am on September 28. The alert again appears at 5pm the evening of September 28 and runs until 11pm under a G1 alert.
The northern lights are only visible when it's dark outside, so those earlier hours aren't much use to aurora hunters. However, if the forecast holds, there's a chance of seeing the display throughout the night of September 27 with a chance of seeing them over a more limited time frame the following night as well. The G2 alert goes into effect at 11pm EST on September 27 and runs until 5am on September 28. That is when it might be seen furthest south and be at its strongest for viewers further north.
For the best view, you need to get away from light pollution. It's incredibly unlikely you'll see them in a city, let alone a major urban hub like Detroit or Chicago. The further you are from city lights, the better.
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 need both cooperative weather and an unobstructed view to the north.
The key to crossing the incredible display off 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'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.)
So, get out into the darkness, see something amazing, and brag about it when you get back to work on Monday. You won't regret it. It's absolutely worthy of being on your bucket list.
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.