In an extremely rare occurrence, parts of the continental United States will be able to see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, thanks to a “geostorm” firing up the particles in the atmosphere that cause the phenomenon.
As CNN reports, a solar flare — or as scientists are calling it, a “geostorm” — erupted from the sun on March 20. A metaphorical tsunami of electromagnetic radiation has been hurtling through space since then, and it’s going to slam into the Earth on Friday night or Saturday morning, depending on time zones.
What that means is that parts of Canada and even the extreme northern parts of the lower 48 states could see the famed Northern Lights. The word “could” is operative here; predicting the visibility of the Northern Lights is not unlike predicting tornadoes. It’s possible to point out when and where the conditions are right, but there are no guarantees. And of course, if it’s cloudy, you’re sunk, regardless of what’s going on in space beyond the clouds.
Still, scientists are hopeful. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a G2 watch, or moderate geostorm watch, for Friday night and Saturday morning. That means that if everything works out perfectly, residents of most of Canada, as well as residents of parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Michigan, Maine, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire (and of course, Alaska), will likely get a spectacular show. Another model also includes parts of Washington state, Idaho, and Montana as possible watch points as well.
And if things go extra well, the lights may be visible as far south as Chicago or Cedar Rapids and points south.
Saturday night northern lights .— 〰️ IN_Severe_Weather 〰️ (@IN_Svr_Wx) March 22, 2019
Green line, chance
Green shading , likely pic.twitter.com/ZfbpL8UhG3
In a case of more good news, The Weather Channel predicts clear skies across the majority of the region, although rain and clouds will bedevil sky-watchers in some parts of the potential viewing area.
The reason it’s so rare to see the Aurora Borealis from the lower 48 states has to do with the way the phenomenon manifests in the first place. As EarthSky explains, the Northern Lights (and their Antarctic equivalent, the Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis) occur when charged particles from the sun collide atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, producing the light; the light that we observe as the ethereal, otherworldly auroras. The effect only occurs around the Earth’s magnetic poles, which means that, due to the planet’s curvature, they’re rarely visible south of the Arctic Circle and north of the Antarctic Circle.
So if you’re in a part of the U.S. or Canada where the Aurora Borealis is expected or hoped to be visible tonight and Saturday morning, here’s what you do, according to Thrillist. Simply head outside after sunset (the geostorm has already arrived, as of this writing), and find a place away from cites so you won’t compete with light pollution. The best spot would be one with a clear view to the horizon. Then look north. That’s it. Your window will close at 2 a.m. ET, so get on this Friday night if possible.