These States Could See Northern Lights As Geomagnetic Storm Heads for Earth

Northern lights may make an appearance in U.S. states as far south as Illinois and Oregon on Thursday, when a strong geomagnetic storm occurs.

The storm, a result of two vast ejections of plasma from the sun headed towards our planet, was predicted by space weather experts earlier this week, though it has since been upgraded in terms of its expected strength.

On Monday, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) issued an alert in which it said a G2 geomagnetic storm was expected to occur on March 31.

On Tuesday, the same storm was upgraded to G3.

The G-scale is a way of describing the strength of geomagnetic storms, starting from G1 on the weak end to G5 at the extreme end.

Thursday's storm could see northern lights occur at geomagnetic latitudes in the low 50s. An SWPC alert issued on Tuesday stated: "Aurora may be seen as low as Pennsylvania to Iowa to Oregon."

The storm is expected to occur from Wednesday night through to the early hours of Thursday morning.

Plasma from the sun can spark particularly active aurora—the shimmering multicolored lights in the sky also known as the northern and southern lights—because it interacts with Earth's atmosphere, heating up molecules and causing them to glow.

The type of aurora the U.S. experiences are the northern lights. Typically they occur close to the north pole, so they tend to be seen mostly in Alaska. During a geomagnetic storm, however, they can occur in more southern states.

While geomagnetic storms can lead to pretty sights in the night sky, they can also cause disruption by affecting electronics.

According to the SWPC, Thursday's storm could cause irregularities in power system voltages; cause increased drag on low Earth-orbit satellites and disrupt their orientation; interfere with high frequency radio; and possibly affect GPS navigation.

However, the SWPC also notes that impacts to technology from a G3 storm "generally remain small."

Mathew Owens, professor of space physics at the University of Reading in the U.K., told Newsweek when a geomagnetic storm might be a cause for concern.

"For the general populace, the biggest concern would probably be the space weather impact on the power system, leading to wide-spread power outages that cannot be quickly fixed due to time scales in replacing transformers," said Owens.

"This leads to all sorts of associated issues, like threat to food security from the loss of refrigeration, etc. But those kinds of effects are only expected for the most extreme CMEs which occur very infrequently. The last large-scale event was the loss of power in Quebec in March, 1989."

Aurora borealis
A photo of the northern lights, also called aurora borealis, in the night sky in Kolari, Finland, on January 15th, 2022. Aurora can be particularly active during geomagnetic storms. Irene Stachon/Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty