Some space weather forecasters are saying tonight could be the best opportunity for us to see the Northern Lights in over a year. Forecasting this phenomenon is very difficult, but here’s how you may be able to see it tonight.
- Wait until the sky gets dark
- Get away from city lights
- Look to the northern horizon
- Be patient, check back through the night
The science behind the Aurora Borealis
Two powerful solar flares erupted from the sun on both Monday and Wednesday this week. Material from these eruptions was thrown through space and toward Earth. Material released from a solar flare is called a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). That material is a plasma consisting of electrons and protons and sometimes helium and oxygen.
Here’s a movie of the X-Class solar flare on Wednesday from NASA:
The Earth’s atmosphere protects us from the large amounts of radiation from the sun; however there are times that power grids see fluctuations or damage. Communication satellites could see disruptions and GPS units could briefly become unusable tonight.
A nice side-effect of these particles hitting the Earth is the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis. Space weather forecasters from NOAA said in their “Space Weather Watch” that auroras are potentially visible from Pennsylvania to Iowa to Oregon. We are at the same latitude as those states, so it is quite possible we could see the Northern Lights tonight.
The Northern Lights occur when the particles from the sun follow the Earth’s magnetic poles and interact with the gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. That interaction causes the gases to emit light. The most common color is a pale green. On some occasions, other colors are present.
From the first eruption from the sun on Monday, Northern Lights were reported from Northern Michigan to Alaska Thursday night. So, the atmosphere is already energized, and the one-two punch on consecutive nights could create an Aurora visible from Southern New England. The strength of the Aurora can be measured by a number called the Kp index. To see the lights from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, we typically need a Kp index of 7 to 8. What makes Friday night/Saturday morning special is that some space weather forecasters are saying we could get a Kp index of 9!
Sunset is at 7:04 p.m. tonight. Once the skies darkens, get away from city lights and look low on the northern horizon.
Forecasting the strength and the timing of the Northern Lights is notoriously difficult. You may want to look at the sky several times through the night. It looks like the sky should be clear through the night. Be patient, dress warmly and keep your fingers crossed.