Witnessing colorful northern lights dance across the sky is a bucket list item for many, and New Yorkers might be able to observe an aurora Thursday night.
The lights, known as the aurora borealis and typically seen in Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia, could be spotted in the contiguous United States this week. The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks expects an aurora to be visible overhead in some states, including parts of Montana, Alaska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and visible on the horizon in areas of Massachusetts, Idaho, Wyoming, Indiana and Maryland.
Where can New Yorkers see the aurora?
Spotting an aurora depends on limited light pollution. The viewer must be far away from city lights, meaning it would be unlikely to see them on Long Island, said Frederick Walter, an astronomy professor at Stony Brook University, adding that chances are a bit better farther east.
Cloudy weather Thursday night paired with forecast showers could thwart local efforts to see the lights, said National Weather Service meteorologist Bryan Ramsey.
The best chance of spotting the colorful lights will be to head upstate, Walter said. Northern lights occur near geomagnetic poles, which is why they are typically spotted farther north, the professor said.
“Generally, the further north you go, the better,” he said of people hoping to catch the natural light show. “Dark sky is an important thing.”
The Geophysical Institute’s forecast shows that Thursday night’s activity will be high. The institute’s map shows the glowing lights could be spotted near the Adirondack Mountains. Spotting the lights throughout America is rare, the institute said.
The best time to see the aurora is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“It’s basically shimmering curtains of red and green. They fade, they come back,” Walter said. “If you see a reddish glow … it’s probably the aurora. It will probably be low on the horizon.”
What causes northern lights?
The phenomenon occurs when electrically charged particles stream off the sun at high velocities and hit the Earth’s magnetic field. The particles cannot cross magnetic field lines, so they spiral around the magnetic field line toward the poles, Walter said.
When the protons and electrons run into the oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere, they ionize the gas, strip off electrons and lose energy in the process. When the ions of oxygen and nitrogen recombine, the electrons find them and they neutralize, emitting the green and red lights of the aurora.
Put more simply, the aurora is caused by electrically charged particles entering the Earth's upper atmosphere at a very high speed.
Why could the lights be visible in New York?
A particularly strong stream of fast-moving electrically charged particles from the sun could make the lights visible outside of normal places, Walter said. The lights have even been spotted in Cuba and Tahiti during extremely strong events, the astronomy professor said.
A forecast solar storm will make them visible farther south than typical, Ramsey said.
The sun is approaching its maximum activity in its 11-year cycle, which means more solar storms and higher-speed streams, which increase the chance of spotting the aurora, Walter said, adding he wouldn’t be surprised if residents in upstate New York would begin spotting the dancing lights monthly. The next solar maximum is expected in 2025, the Geophysical Institute said.
“The sun has a profound influence on the Earth. This is one of the prettier things it does for us,” Walter said.