A solar storm is expected to reach earth today, Wednesday, March 14, and last through Thursday, March 15.
The storm will bring with it a stunning display of the Northern Lights that may be visible to people further south than usual. But what does the storm mean and how can it affect Earth?
What causes the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights occur because of “collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere,” according to the Northern Lights Centre. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. Each hemisphere has its own name. In the north they are known as “aurora borealis,” and in the south as “aurora australis.”
Though the Northern Lights are often pictured as bright green streaks, they can actually come in many different colors including pink, red, yellow, green, blue, and violet, according to the Centre. The different colors occur when the gas particles collide at different heights in the atmosphere.
For example, the classic green occurs when the gas collides at 60 miles above the Earth’s surface, while bright red may occur at heights around 200 miles above Earth.
When the sun experiences a solar storm, it emits superheated plasma. That plasma is known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), which can trigger a geomagnetic storm. In turn, that geomagnetic storm can cause solar flares, which are a release of magnetic energy, and cause the Earth’s Northern Lights to light up. Pretty simple science, right? (Yeah, right.)
And though a sun flair and a coronal mass ejection sounds a bit scary there is truly nothing to worry about. The storms are measured on a scale from G1 to G5. Tonight’s storm, according to NASA, is classified as a G1. If a G5 were to hit Earth it could cause “Widespread voltage control problems and protective system problems can occur, some grid systems may experience complete collapse or blackouts. Transformers may experience damage,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. On the bright side? If a G5 hit Earth the Northern Lights would be visible as far south as Florida and Southern Texas.
Chance of seeing Northern Lights
If you live in Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Northern Europe, or the “northern tier” of the United States, which includes states like Michigan and Maine, your chances of seeing the Northern Lights tonight are very good. Check out the Aurora Forecast to see where the best spots are to catch the Northern Lights tonight and tomorrow.
Where can you see the Northern Lights?
The best way to see the Northern Lights is to get out of the city and get close to nature. The lights can be notoriously difficult to spot even in the best of environments, so to give yourself the best shot of seeing them tonight head away from the city lights and find the darkest spot you can. Then, you simply have to sit, wait, and pray they show up. The best place in the United States is absolutely the Dark Sky Reserve in Idaho, where man-made lights are highly restricted.
If you’re looking to plan a trip specifically to see the Northern Lights, check out Travel + Leisure’s list of the best places to catch nature’s premiere stargazing show all around the globe. From Iceland to Norway to Sweden and even right in Pennsylvania, there’s a location for everyone.