Will the Northern Lights Be Visible in the U.S. Tonight?
Update: The northern lights forecast has changed since the article was written this morning, and NOAA has downgraded the strength of the solar storm from G3 (strong) to G1 (minor), decreasing the odds of spotting the lights tonight and tomorrow.
Increased solar activity may give some people living in the lower 48 states a rare chance to glimpse the northern lights on Thursday.
On Monday, a solar flare produced a coronal mass ejection (CME), a spout of plasma from the sun's atmosphere that is now headed toward Earth, AccuWeather reported. This has the potential to generate a geomagnetic storm as the solar particles interact with Earth's atmosphere. In turn, these storms generate the phenomenon known as the aurora borealis, or northern lights, in the Northern Hemisphere and the aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere.
"It's all about the strength of the solar storm. The stronger the storm, the farther south the auroras are seen," explained David Samuhel, AccuWeather senior meteorologist and astronomy blogger.
The National Oceanic and Space Administration (NOAA) has put a G3 (strong) geomagnetic storm watch in place for Dec. 10 and a G2 (moderate) geomagnetic storm watch in place for Dec. 11, according to the most recent forecast from its Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC).
"If the storm gets this strong, it is possible to see the northern lights as far south as northern Pennsylvania, Iowa and Washington, but it will look more like a faint glow on the horizon, not swirling bands of light overhead like what people think of when they think about the aurora," AccuWeather Meteorologist Brian Lada said.
The aurora usually appears so far north and south because solar particles get directed there by the Earth's magnetic field, where they interact with the atmosphere to create an impressive light show.
The solar storm was originally predicted to be seen on Wednesday evening.
"Tonight's anticipated auroral activity in lower latitudes is looking like a bust," NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Ambassador Tony Rice tweeted Wednesday night.
The aurora could be a no-show Thursday night as well, since NOAA's SWPC has said its confidence in a G3 storm is diminishing.
Even if the aurora does extend farther south than usual, people in cities like Boston and Seattle may have a harder time seeing it.
"I'd say light pollution affects [visibility of the northern lights] much more than meteor showers," Samuhel told AccuWeather. "It is usually so dim when it's visible this far south that you have to be in a pitch-black area to see it, even then it could still be too dim."
That said, the solar flare prompting these predictions is a sign of things to come. The sun is moving from a low-activity solar minimum to a Solar Cycle 25, an 11-year period that experiences increased storminess on the sun's surface, The Washington Post explained. This period of activity should peak in July 2025.
"[S]ky-watchers at high latitudes can expect more opportunities to see the northern lights in the years ahead," Matthew Cappucci wrote for The Washington Post. "And as we roll the dice enough times, there's even a chance that a strong-enough solar storm could spill aurora into the middle latitudes."
However, periods of high solar activity don't just generate light shows. Solar flares can also damage power grids and disrupt satellite communications when they are directed toward Earth.
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