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What are the Northern Lights? How and when can you see aurora borealis in the US?

The natural phenomenon that lights up the night sky is usually only visible in more northerly countries, but could be seen from the US this week.

Update:
Northern Lights will be visible from the US this week
OLIVIER MORINAFP

Parts of the United States could be in for a treat this week as aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, could make a rare appearance in the skies for two nights in a row.

Explosions on the surface of the sun have sparked coronal mass ejections, sending clouds of charged particles into the solar system. These charged particles will light up the night sky and make the Northern Lights visible in mainland US.

Brian Lada of AccuWeather explains: “These clouds of particles are predicted to collide with Earth’s magnetic field on Wednesday night into Thursday, sparking dazzling displays of the aurora.”

When can I see the Northern Lights in the US?

Typically aurora borealis is only visible closer to the North Pole, in Alaska and Canada, but the solar storm will push them further south on Thursday and Friday and could be seen in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oregon.

The Northern Lights are usually clearest under dark skies from August until mid-April. The phenomenon is most eye-catching on clear, cloudless nights and there is typically greater activity around the equinoxes, when there are exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of sunlight in a day. The next one will take place on 23 September.

If you are hoping a catch a glimpse of this week’s lights show, here’s a few tips to get the best view:

  • Try to find a spot with little or no light pollution
  • Find a place with higher elevation
  • Check whether your area is expecting cloud or precipitation, which could block the lights
  • Don’t be confused by the name, the Northern Lights can appear in any direction

What are the Northern Lights?

The term ‘aurora borealis’ means ‘light of dawn’ and is thought to have been coined by Galileo in 1623. The name comes from the words ‘Aurora’, the goddess of the dawn, and ‘Boreas’, which is the personification of the northern wind.

The Northern Lights occur when highly charged solar particles collide with particles in the earth’s atmosphere. Energy from the collision is transferred into light and creates the stunning show we can see from earth.

The strongest magnetic fields on earth are found in the Polar Regions at the top and bottom of the planet, which is why the phenomenon is most clearly visible in areas close to there.

The lights at the South Pole are called aurora australis, but are generally only visible from uninhabited areas. In the northern hemisphere, the phenomenon is visible in the northernmost parts of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Alaska and Russia, and all of Iceland.

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