That’s thanks to an incoming coronal mass ejection, which will impact Earth on January 22 to 23. While it’s nothing to worry about—mild solar storms aren’t uncommon—this one may result in the aurora borealis being visible further south than is typical, giving some sky watchers a rare treat.
Specifically, according to the Aurora Dashboard, the northern lights may be visible across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, upstate New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, northern Idaho, and Washington State on the evening of January 22. The aurora should also be visible in some states tomorrow night, albeit further north.
For more details on where the aurora borealis will be visible, as well as an updated forecast, check out NOAA’s website here.
You don’t need any special tools to see the northern lights—you only need to step outside and look upward. If you reside in a light-polluted area, they may be more difficult to see. Away from city lights, they are easily visible to the unaided eye.
Space weather can be both dazzling and destructive
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, are caused by space weather interacting with Earth’s upper atmosphere. This particular geomagnetic storm watch was issued because of a coronal mass ejection (CME). That occurs when material from the sun, called plasma, escapes the star’s surface. It travels outward from our host star at millions of miles per hour, and when it impacts Earth’s magnetic field, it creates a geomagnetic storm that gives rise to the aurora.
Generally, solar weather’s impact on Earth is pretty mild—but when the sun is especially active, the threat increases. A big solar storm would wreak havoc on technology; it could disrupt the electric grid, affect communication cables, damage satellites, make GPS go haywire, and more. In 2022, SpaceX lost up to 40 new Starlink satellites because the company launched them into a geomagnetic storm; the storm heated up and thickened the atmosphere, which made it impossible for the satellites to navigate to their correct orbit.
The largest recorded CME occurred in 1859, and is known as the Carrington Event. The northern lights were visible as far south as Hawaii, and the geomagnetic storm disrupted telegraph dispatches because of the auroral current.
A peak season for solar activity
The sun operates on a solar cycle. The sun is, essentially, a giant ball of hot gas (called plasma) fusing hydrogen into helium at its core. Every 11 years, the star’s magnetic poles flip. When that happens, the sun has achieved solar maximum—its most active period—and transitions back toward solar minimum.
We’re currently approaching solar maximum, meaning that solar activity is high. Scientists think that the solar maximum of our current Solar Cycle 25 will occur between January and October 2024.
In the meantime, sky watchers will be able to enjoy a special season of more frequent solar activity, leading to more dazzling displays like this evening’s aurora borealis.