When Can You See Aurora? Dashboard Lets You See Northern Lights Forecast

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has launched a new experimental aurora dashboard that will tell people when and where to look for northern and southern lights.

Auroras are the shimmering sky colors that can often be seen in night skies in locations around the world that are close to Earth's magnetic poles, like Iceland or Alaska.

These lights occur when the sun launches charged particles towards Earth through space. When they reach our planet, Earth's magnetic field guides them towards the poles where they interact with the atoms in our atmosphere.

Aurora shimmers in sky
A stock image depicts lights from an aurora shimmering in the sky as two people observe. The auroras are caused by charged particles from the sun interacting with Earth's atmosphere. basiczto/Getty

These interactions excite the atmospheric particles, causing them to give off light. The color of light differs depending on the particle. Oxygen, which makes up roughly 21 percent of Earth's atmosphere, tends to give off a green light. Nitrogen, which makes up around 78 percent of Earth's atmosphere, tends to give off hints of purple, blue, or pink. Particularly energetic interactions with oxygen may also give off red colors.

The auroras are a beautiful sight to behold and become rarer the closer a person gets to the equator. However, auroras tend to occur closer to the equator than usual whenever the sun is particularly active, and this can be predicted.

Using the SWPC's new aurora dashboard, people can view the aurora forecast for the next few minutes, the upcoming night, and the following night. These forecasts show how strong the aurora will be and where it is likely to occur.

Marina Galand, a professor in planetary science at Imperial College London in the U.K., told Newsweek that auroras are not just amazing to see but can also give scientists useful information about solar activity.

"The energetic particles, responsible for the auroral emissions, also ionize and heat the upper atmosphere," she said. "Increasing the ionization, through which an electron and an ion are produced, may affect communications between the ground and space, such as GPS information, or ground-atmosphere-ground communication, such as high frequency radio communication (skywave).

"In extreme cases, intense currents are generated and may lead to a blackout at a power station on the ground. The upper atmosphere is also heated and hence expands, like an inflatable balloon which is warmed up. This may affect the orbit of satellites and in extreme cases lead to loss of them. It is hence critical to be able to infer information on the particles bombarding the auroral regions in order to assess the state of the upper atmosphere and potential impact on our technologies."

Galand said that it is possible to infer the energy and quantity of solar particles smashing into our atmosphere by studying the brightness and colors of auroras. She said knowing such information is "essential in the context of space weather."

The SWPC's aurora dashboard can be found on its website here.