The Northern Lights Will Be Visible Over the U.S. This Weekend. Here's How to See It.
Labor Day weekend is all about spending time outside. People spend time at a park or the State Fair, and you absolutely spend a little time around the grill. There's going to be a pretty good reason to stay up late over Labor Day weekend as well (besides the beers). The northern lights will be visible over a large part of the northern United States.
The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued G1 and G2 geomagnetic storm watches for the night of August 31 into the following morning. "These geomagnetic storm conditions are forecast in response to influences associated with a coronal hole high speed stream," the SWPC wrote in the alert. Under these conditions, there's an increased chance of seeing the northern lights markedly further south than usual.
The SWPC's map (shown above) is a little small, so it's difficult to see exactly where the southern reach of aurora could hit. You're looking at an area that's about halfway between the yellow and green lines. A previous map with greater detail shows the "most likely area of Aurora Extent" for the night of August 31 will include Alaska, 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 Canada. Of course, the northern lights is already a common sight in places like Alaska and Canada.
The video above shows the aurora borealis over the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan following a G1 watch, which gives a sense of what you should expect. Under these circumstances, you might not have the brilliant ribbons of bright light you'll find in, say, Iceland or Alaska, but the display is nonetheless stunning.
How To See the Northern Lights
The SWPC's 3-Day Forecast has a minimum of G1 alert running from 2pm EST on August 31 until 5am on September 1. Of course, you can't see the aurora during the day, but if the forecast holds, you should have viewing opportunities throughout the night. However, the more powerful G2 alert only runs from 8-11pm EST. So, toward the green line on the map above, you should have a good view throughout the night. If you're south of the green line, you're going to want to get out sometime between dusk and 11pm EST, which doesn't leave much time for folks on the West Coast.
For the best view, get away from the light pollution of the city. It doesn't really matter if the alert is in effect in an area like New York City or Chicago, because you're highly unlikely to spot the northern lights there. You need to get somewhere dark for the best view.
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, are likely to be largely visible along the northern horizon rather than directly overhead. That's why you need both cooperative weather and an unobstructed view.
It also helps to plan on being outside for a while, but that was your plan for the long weekend anyhow, right? Your eyes need time to adjust to the darkness to have the best view of the aurora and everything else in the night sky.
The northern lights finds its way down to the contiguous US from time to time, but it doesn't happen frequently enough to ignore. It's a perfect weekend to spend some time outside, crossing an item off your bucket list.