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A rare solar storm may bring the Northern Lights south to the US

A solar flare may lead to a super-charged light show.

Northern Lights in Norway.
The Aurora Borealis is generally only on display in the far north.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Get ready: The Northern Lights might be taking a trip south this weekend.

There’s a chance the aurora borealis light show will be on full display for observers across Montana, Minnesota, Michigan, and New York, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute aurora forecast Saturday.

Other regions further south may also get a glimpse of the color-filled spectacle, the institute found. Wyoming, Nebraska, and Indiana are projected to have low visibility, and even Annapolis, Maryland, may get glimmers of the lights.

Typically, the lights are reserved for observers in the northern latitudes across Alaska, Canada, and Scandinavia. But this weekend the Aurora Borealis is making a relatively rare appearance across large swaths of the US thanks to a solar flare, or an influx of charged particles, that erupted on March 20.

Saturday’s aurora forecast from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF)’s Geophysical Institute.

Auroras generally occur when charged particles from the sun form a fast-moving cloud. When these particles crash into Earth’s atmosphere, they release energy in the form of light, which most commonly appears as shimmering green, though it may also blend into hues of blue and red-purple depending on the altitude and the types of gases with which the particles collide. Solar flares, like the one that occurred on March 20, may supercharge the aurora’s glow so that its visibility extends farther than usual.

On Saturday, March 23, the Space Weather Prediction Center issued a “moderate” geomagnetic storm watch, which increases the likelihood of an intensified Northern Lights. Depending on if or when the particles collide with the Earth’s magnetic field, the Northern Lights may be bright enough to spot as far south as Iowa and Colorado.

Still, there’s a chance the storm may not be entirely visible to any of these regions in the US. The ideal conditions for such an effect require clear and dark skies, which means that rural star-gazers will likely have an easier time spotting the lights than most city dwellers. It also doesn’t help that the near-full moon Saturday night may obscure visibility.

For the best results, the UAF Geophysical Institute recommends looking out for the Aurora three to four hours before midnight.

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