Solar Storm Could Light Up Sky Over U.S. Tonight: How to See the Northern Lights

A solar storm is due to reach Earth tonight, and it might just light up the skies near you. If you live in the northern tier of the U.S., look upwards Thursday and Friday and you could spot the northern lights.

The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center forecasts an aurora could shimmer in the sky above areas including Michigan and Maine.

#Solarstorm & #Aurora 5-day Outlook: Waiting for impact of #ValentinesDay storm followed by fast #solar wind. Lucky for romance under #aurora filled skies down to mid-latitudes! In each table, the top row shows what conditions are expected, bottom shows possible maximum activity.

— Dr. Tamitha Skov (@TamithaSkov) February 14, 2018

On Monday, the sun belched out a slew of charged particles in a moderate solar flare. These particles are now making their way toward Earth.

The planet's magnetic field will block most of the particles, but some will make it into the atmosphere. The particles collect at the north and south poles and interact with atmospheric gases.

This produces vivid, haunting auroral displays that dance in the skies at high latitudes.

2_15_Aurora Australis
The Aurora Australis lights up the sky near the south pole. Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps

How can I see the aurora?

"High" latitude usually refers to the area above 60 degrees magnetic latitude. This is slightly different to 60 degrees geographic latitude because Earth's magnetic poles don't quite line up with its geographic poles.

The U.S. is lucky when it comes to the northern lights. Auroras can be seen at a lower geographic latitude than in Europe and Asia because of the position of the magnetic north pole.

2_15_Aurora map
This map shows the midnight equatorward boundary of the aurora at different levels of geomagnetic activity. A G1 storm produces Kp=5 activity, denoted by the green line. NOAA/Public Domain

The aurora is also visible slightly below this region if you look toward the horizon. Even if the boundary is four or five degrees north of your magnetic latitude you may still catch a glimpse of the lights.

Once you are in position, you will need to wait for darkness to set in to see an aurora. Light pollution and clouds may obscure the colorful display.

Is the geomagnetic storm dangerous?

The agency categorizes the storm as "G1," which means it is minor. However, it could still cause some havoc down on Earth.

G1-level storms may affect migratory animals, and can cause "weak power grid fluctuations." The barrage of particles may even have a minor impact on satellites.