Where can I see the northern lights in the US? What travelers should know

Where can I see the northern lights in the US? What travelers should know


Many Americans got a rare chance to see the northern lights over the weekend. The aurora borealis appeared over large portions of North America and other parts of the world, fueled by a strong solar storm.

But if you missed them, you’re not entirely out of luck.

While weaker than over the weekend, there is a G2 – or “moderate” – geomagnetic storm watch in place for Tuesday until about 8 p.m. Eastern time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center. The watch will then shift down to G1, or “minor.”

“I think there is a slight chance overnight for people in the northern tier states (bordering Canada) to maybe see something,” said Lt. Bryan Brasher, a project manager with the Space Weather Prediction Center. Here’s what to know.

Where can I see the northern lights in the US?

“The aurora may become visible over some northern and upper Midwest states from New York to Idaho,” the center’s advisory for Tuesday said.

Brasher said the sun’s 11-year cycle is “approaching or at” solar maximum, the period of highest activity. “For people at mid-latitude states – Colorado, Nebraska, maybe even up to the Dakotas – there’s a high chance a couple of times, a dozen times over the next year or two years people could see (northern lights) for sure,” he said.

In order to see them in lower-latitude states like Hawaii – where sightings were reported this weekend – the geomagnetic storm has to be particularly extreme. “While there’s nothing to say they couldn’t occur next week, history has shown us that a (storm of that level) only happens once a solar cycle, sometimes twice,” Brasher said.

Generally, northern Alaska will give guests the best shot to see the northern lights stateside, he added.

Other parts of the U.S. like northern Maine can also offer sightings, according to Kristina Lynch, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. “And in New Hampshire, at least, we tell people to look for a clear view to the north,” she said. “There’s so many trees in New Hampshire, it’s a problem. It’s hard to see the northern horizon.”

Where else can I see northern lights?

Outside the U.S., Brasher recommended the northern territories of Canada or northern Scandinavia. In the Southern Hemisphere, where this kind of display is known as the southern lights or the aurora australis, Antarctica is a “good bet even at nominal levels of solar activity.” Tasmania in Australia and New Zealand’s South Island are other options.

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Wherever you are, it must be dark. Lynch said you need to be able to see “many stars.”

“So you have to get out of town a little,” she said.

What month is best to see the northern lights?

Brasher said there is typically a better connection between solar wind and our magnetic field around equinoxes. “Around both the spring and fall equinoxes, there tends to be a little better response and a little better chance for seeing stronger aurora,” he said.

There are also more dark hours in the winter, Lynch noted, offering more potential sightings. The best aurora usually occur “within an hour or two of midnight,” according to the Space Weather Prediction Center.

“These hours of active aurora expand towards evening and morning as the level of geomagnetic activity increases,” the center’s website reads. “There may be aurora in the evening and morning but it is usually not as active and therefore, not as visually appealing.”

What causes the northern lights?

The aurora forms when the particles flowing from the sun get caught up in the Earth’s magnetic field. The particles interact with molecules of atmospheric gases to cause the famed glowing green and reddish colors of the aurora.

How often do the northern lights happen?

While the breadth of viewing opportunities may vary, northern lights occur year-round. “I mean, my advisor always used to say, ‘There’s always aurora. It’s just, sometimes it’s not very exciting,” said Lynch.

Contributing: Doyle Rice and Eve Chen, USA TODAY

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at ndiller@usatoday.com.

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