You don't have to be in chilly Fairbanks, Alaska or Yellowknife, Canada, to see the Aurora Borealis Saturday night (but as Alaskans know, it does help). Seattle, New York, Pittsburgh, and Washington might see a display of the northern lights after sunset. At least that's what some forecasting models are saying.
Thanks to a big solar flare that left the sun Thursday, Accuweather.com is generating some buzz online by predicting a "dazzling" light show tonight:
"The flare is also expected to cause vibrant northern lights from the Arctic as far south as New York, the Dakotas, Washington and Michigan, with a smaller possibility of it going into Pennsylvania and Iowa, even Kansas. The lights are currently estimated for 8 p.m. EDT Saturday arrival, with a possible deviation of up to seven hours. If the radiation hits much after dark settles on the East Coast the lights may be missed and will instead only be visible for the West."
They've also provided a pretty cool map (see above) that may or may not prove accurate.
Solar flares are waves of charged plasma that come streaming toward our planet at about four million miles per hour. When they hit the Earth's upper atmosphere they release visible light and are channeled toward the Earth's poles by the planet's magnetic field. The norther aurora borealis is called the northern lights. The displays over the southern pole are called the southern lights or aurora australis.
This particular blast of plasma may also put on a light show over parts of Europe and Russia too. Accuweather says the British Isles, and as far south as the northern parts of Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia and Estonia may see the northern lights.
Accuweather's Hunter Outten has been updating this latest aurora borealis watch on the company's Facebook page. At 3:35 p.m., he wrote:
"Still have not seen any key signs yet of the CME close to hitting the planet. Looks like the time is shaping up right on schedule for anywhere from 5-9PM EDT."
CME refers to the Coronal Mass Ejection, the burst of plasma released from the Sun. Mr. Outten shares how he's tracking the arrival of the plasma burst via the compression of the magnet field with this NOAA chart..
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has its own forecasting model, including a chart, which is a lot harder to parse. You can check out the Ovation Auroral Forecast here.
The opportunity to see the northern lights at many of these latitudes is a rare treat, but the usual caveats for celestial events still apply. A successful sighting will be dependent on a variety of local factors, such as cloud cover, full moon, and urban light pollution.
And if you happen to be in Fairbanks or Yellowknife tonight, the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute says the prospects are also good for viewing the aurora borealis.