May 04, 2023

We could be seeing the northern lights more often: Here’s why

by: Addy Bink

Posted: May 7, 2023 / 03:04 PM EDT

Updated: May 7, 2023 / 03:11 PM EDT

(NEXSTAR) – In recent weeks, states as far south as Alabama have had the chance to view a relatively rare night-sky occurrence: the northern lights. Thanks to some ongoing solar activity, the celestial event may be more common in the coming months.

Late last month, a severe geomagnetic storm erupted after a coronal mass ejection and minor solar flare were detected on the Sun.

Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, are explosions of plasma and magnetic material from the sun that can reach Earth in as little as 15 to 18 hours, NOAA explains. Solar flares and CMEs (which can occur at the same time) can impact navigation, communication and radio signals on Earth, and CMEs are able to create a stunning show in the night sky. According to NASA, CMEs can create currents in Earth's magnetic fields that send particles to the North and South Poles. When those particles interact with oxygen and nitrogen, they can create auroras.

Another CME was forecasted to impact Earth in early May, bringing the potential for northern light sightings to many northern states.

It's all thanks to Solar Cycle 25, which began in December 2019, according to Rob Steenburgh, a space scientist with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center. During this cycle, an 11-year period, the sun will flip its magnetic poles and cause space weather, which is "variations in the space environment between the Sun and Earth." That includes CMEs.

"These events are common, occurring on average two times a day during the most active period of the 11-year solar cycle. The majority of these eruptions are not directed towards Earth," Steenburgh explained in a NOAA article. Those that are, however, can cause stunning northern lights.

The Sun is expected to reach its most active point, known as solar maxium, in mid-2024, according to Steenburgh. More activity on the Sun can lead to more chances to see the northern lights.

While it can be difficult to tell when exactly the U.S. will have the chance to see the aurora borealis, NOAA does offer single-day and next-day forecasts for potential northern light viewing.

With the exception of the late-April geomagnetic storm that sent the northern lights into the south-central U.S., recent aurora borealis events have only been viewable to the upper portions of the U.S. – Washington, the northern tip of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and parts of New York and Maine.

NOAA's latest forecast for Sunday, May 7, shows many of those same states – Alaska, Washington, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and the northern portion of Idaho – have a chance to see the northern lights again. Depending on conditions, the auroras could stretch as far south as Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, Maine, and portions of Wyoming, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

Monday night, NOAA's forecast shows the northern lights have a low likelihood of appearing only as far south as Minnesota's southern border.

Want to increase your chances of seeing the auroras? Head north – Alaska and Canada frequently have the opportunity to catch the stunning colors light up the sky.

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