Updated May 10, 2024 - Science

How to see the Northern Lights in the U.S. this weekend

Northern lights illuminate the sky in Ostrava, Czech Republic on May 10, 2024.

Northern lights illuminate the sky in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on May 10. Photo: Lukas Kabon/Anadolu via Getty Images

A severe geomagnetic storm has reached Earth and is expected to continue through the weekend, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center said Friday.

Why it matters: The solar storm could potentially disrupt communications, the electric power grid, and navigation, radio and satellite operations, the prediction center said.

Driving the news: NOAA space weather forecasters said they observed at least seven coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the Sun and the first reached Earth Friday at 12:37pm ET.

  • CMEs have the potential to harm satellites, impact infrastructure and disrupt communications.
  • The NOAA center said it will continue to monitor the ongoing storm and "provide additional warnings as necessary."

Solar storm watch

State of play: NOAA issued a "very rare" Severe (G4) Geomagnetic Storm Watch this week, it's first such alert in 19 years.

  • "This is an unusual and potentially historic event," Clinton Wallace, NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center director, said in a news release.
  • NOAA said Friday night that extreme G5 geomagnetic conditions reached the Earth for the first time since 2003.

Northern Lights forecast for May 2024

The big picture: The strong storm could trigger colorful, "spectacular displays of aurora," also known as the Northern Lights, from Friday through Sunday, May 12, the SWPC said in its forecast.

  • NOAA predicts the aurora could be seen for much of the northern half of the country "as far south as Alabama to Northern California."
  • Later Friday, the forecast was expanded to say it may be seen "as low as Florida to southern Texas and southern California."
  • Auroras often look like blowing curtains as green, red, and purple light shifts.

Northern tier U.S. states bordering Canada should have a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis, Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at the SWPC, told Axios' Rebecca Falconer Thursday.

  • Northern Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the majority of North Dakota appear to have the best chances to see it, per SWPC's aurora viewline.
  • Forecast models Friday showed the activity will likely be the strongest from Friday night to Saturday morning Eastern time.

The intrigue: Images from the aurora in Europe, many with a pink glow, were trending on social media Friday.

Aurora viewing tips: Best times to see Northern Lights

Zoom in: It's hard to spot, but watching space weather forecasts can help.

Aurora viewing depends on four factors, according to the SWPC.

1. Geomagnetic activity: "If the geomagnetic field is active, then the aurora will be brighter and further from the poles. Geomagnetic activity is driven by solar activity and solar coronal holes and thus it waxes and wanes with time."

2. Location: Go toward the magnetic poles.

  • Alaska is known for being one of the best places to view auroras along with Canada and Scandinavia because of the high northern latitudes, according to the institute.

3. Darkness: It needs to be dark and you'll need to get away from city lights.

The institute notes there is "always some aurora at some place on earth" but it might be faint and occur at very high latitudes. "Sunlight and clouds are the biggest obstacles to auroral observations."

4. Timing: Between 10pm and 2am local time is usually the best time to spot auroras, the prediction center said.

  • The best seasons for aurora watching are typically around the spring and fall equinoxes.

Go deeper: In photos: Northern Lights light up the sky

Editor's note: This story was updated with additional information including NOAA saying extreme G5 geomagnetic conditions have been observed and an expanded forecast.

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