One Pretty Thing: The Northern Lights Visible In the Lower 48

This week presents a rare astronomical event: the northern lights will be visible to a large swathe of the United States. According to the latest forecast from the Space Weather Prediction Center, the Aurora Borealis can be spotted from the Pacific Northwest to New England and as far south as northern Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Why this Matters: Many travel to witness the Aurora in person, yet countries where one can usually travel to in order to see the spectacular northern lights— like Iceland, Finland, and Sweden — are currently banning tourists to avoid increased risks in the coronavirus pandemic.

A Rare Sight

These northern lights are the result of a coronal mass ejection on December 7, which disseminated plasma and magnetic fields toward earth. Because of this, a geomagnetic storm is on its way. NOAA’s Geomagnetic Storm Index, which measures the magnitude of solar activity, predicts a Planetary K Index of 7 out of 9 with G3 storm levels. This storm is strong enough to bring the northern lights further south than normal. The sun recently started an 11-year cycle of activity, which will peak in 2025, but will cause solar flares to be much stronger and more common, meaning that if you miss the aurora this time around, it’s likely that you’ll have another chance to see the northern lights at a lower latitude than normal.

Moreover, the northern lights aren’t the only celestial events happening this month. The Geminid meteor shower will be at its strongest next week, and Jupiter and Saturn make their closest visible approach to Earth since the Middle Ages on December 21.

A Quick Tip

If you want to see the northern lights for yourself, get out of areas with high light pollution, and look north towards the horizon. The farther north you go, the more likely it is for you to see the aurora, as long as there aren’t too many clouds blocking your view.

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