Most kids aren’t lucky enough to live in an area where they can easily see the northern lights ripple and glow across the night sky. According to calculations from the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), however, a minor solar storm on a collision course with Earth this Wednesday will make the lights visible from lower latitudes than normal. Families in the northernmost regions of the U.S. – such as Maine, Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts – will have a chance to go outside and see the amplified display for themselves.
The term “solar storm” may inspire visions post-apocalyptic blackouts, satellites falling from the sky, and a cosmic wrench being thrown into life on earth. Not to worry, though; even the most powerful storms known to hit the planet typically just enhance the northern lights’ beauty.
While the impending light show will be visible from a few new locations this week, the northern lights – which are caused by electronically charged particles from the sun colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere – typically glow year-round. The lights can normally only be seen from places as far north as Alaska, Greenland, Canada, and Russia.
The SWPC has suggested that the storm hitting the Earth this week originated from a coronal hole, a darker part of the sun’s corona that allows particles to stream out into space at twice the speed they normally do. The corona is easiest to see during a full lunar eclipse, identifies by the glow that still jets out from the sun’s edges once it’s been totally blocked out by the moon. Normally, the energy emitted by the corona bounces back onto the sun, but coronal holes are less dense and release the energy out into space. While the northern lights can come in a variety of colors like yellow, blue, or red, the most common hues – and what first time viewers are likely to see this week – are still light green and pink.
Parents will need to be quick, though: solar storms like this one are only known to last about 12 hours, and the lights will only be visible at night, in areas with significantly less light pollution. While this probably won’t be a huge problem for people observing the spectacle in a state like Maine, observers in New York, for example, might have to head further upstate to get a decent look at the lights.
For families who will have a hard time getting away from man-made lights on Wednesday night, don’t worry, there are still a handful of live streams and webcasts focused on the lights all year long.