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Rare spectacle: Northern lights may be visible in 17 states next week

For those who dream of witnessing the northern lights, an opportunity could present itself next week. The aurora borealis is expected to be visible over 17 U.S. states on Thursday, July 13.

The states that could potentially get a glimpse of this rare spectacle include Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Maryland, New York, New Hampshire, Washington, Vermont, Idaho, Massachusetts, Wyoming, and Indiana.

What causes the northern lights?

The northern lights, one of nature’s most awe-inspiring phenomena, are caused by the interaction between the sun’s solar winds and Earth’s magnetic field

“Aurora is the name given to the glow or light produced when electrons from space flow down Earth’s magnetic field and collide with atoms and molecules of the upper atmosphere in a ring or oval centered on the magnetic pole of Earth,” explains the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.

This collision results in the emission of light, an effect similar to how neon lights operate. “The collisions produce light much like how electrons flowing through gas in a neon light collide with neon and other gases to produce different colored light bulbs.”

Exciting forecast for next week

Recent forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute suggest a surge in auroral activity on the night of July 13, with the possibility of this captivating light show becoming visible in several parts of Canada and the United States.

The predictions indicate that the northern lights could illuminate the night skies in the northern regions of 17 U.S. states, provided the weather conditions remain favorable. 

“Auroral activity will be high(+). Weather permitting, highly active auroral displays will be visible overhead from Inuvik, Yellowknife, Rankin and Iqaluit to Vancouver, Helena, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Bay City, Toronto, Montpelier, and Charlottetown, and visible low on the horizon from Salem, Boise, Cheyenne, Lincoln, Indianapolis and Annapolis,” reports the UAF Institute.

When and how to view the northern lights 

For those fortunate enough to be in these regions, the ideal window for viewing the aurora borealis is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center. Enthusiasts are advised to move away from city lights to enjoy a clearer and brighter view of the northern lights.

The brightness and visibility of the aurora significantly depend on the level of geomagnetic activity. As the anticipated date draws closer, NOAA will be closely monitoring the activity and will release its own forecast to aid potential viewers.

Notably, the last major northern light event in the U.S. occurred during a geomagnetic storm in late April, where the lights were visible across 30 U.S. states including parts of Iowa, North Dakota, and Kansas. Next week’s event could offer another rare opportunity to witness this celestial fantasy. 

More about the northern lights 

The northern lights, also known as aurora borealis, are a captivating natural light display predominantly seen in the high-latitude regions around the Arctic and Antarctic. The lights form when solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements.

The interaction between these particles and atmospheric molecules results in the emission of light, producing a vibrant, ethereal spectacle of green, red, yellow, blue, and violet. 

The particular color of the light display depends on the type of gas particles involved in the collision and the altitude at which the collision occurs. For instance, green light, the most common color seen in the auroras, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above Earth’s surface.

The term “aurora borealis” is derived from the Latin words “aurora” (meaning dawn) and “borealis” (meaning north). Similarly, its southern counterpart is known as the aurora australis, or southern lights.

The occurrence and strength of the northern lights are closely linked to solar activity. They are most commonly seen during periods of high solar activity such as during a solar maximum, when sunspots and solar flares are more frequent. 

However, the lights can occur anytime the Earth passes through a region of space affected by solar wind, a stream of charged particles released from the sun.

The northern lights have fascinated humans for centuries, and are featured in the folklore and mythology of many cultures. Today, they continue to draw tourists from around the world to high-latitude regions like Scandinavia, Canada, and Alaska, where the northern lights are a regular spectacle.

While they are a year-round phenomenon, northern lights are more easily observed in the winter months due to the extended hours of darkness. It’s also worth noting that clear skies are essential for observing these lights. Places with low light pollution are the best spots for viewing.


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