(NEXSTAR) — Residents living in more than a dozen U.S. states have the chance to see the northern lights Sunday thanks to recent activity on the Sun.
A coronal mass ejection and a minor solar flare happened Friday, April 21, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center. In addition to sparking a geomagnetic storm watch through Monday, April 24, the solar activity means the northern lights will be visible as far south as Nebraska and Iowa.
Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are explosions of plasma and magnetic material from the Sun that can reach Earth in as little as 15 to 18 hours, NOAA explained. Slower CMEs, like the one observed Friday night, can take days to impact us.
While both solar flares and CMEs — which can occur at the same time — can impact navigation, communication and radio signals on Earth, CMEs are able to create a stunning show in the night sky. According to NASA, CMEs can create currents in Earth’s magnetic fields that send particles to the North and South Poles. When those particles interact with oxygen and nitrogen, they can create auroras.
“When we see the glowing aurora, we are watching a billion individual collisions [between the particles and atoms and molecules], lighting up the magnetic field lines of Earth,” NASA wrote.
Will you see the northern lights?
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is forecasting a quiet to moderate aurora for many northern states on Sunday, April 23.
While Canada and Alaska are forecasted to have the best viewing, Washington, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota may also see the northern lights Sunday night. Parts of Idaho, Wisconsin, Oregon, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine may as well.
The best viewing conditions will be between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time, according to the National Weather Service’s Bismark, North Dakota, office. You’ll also want to move away from city lights, which can drown out the aurora.
Viewing is expected to diminish Monday night, with only the northernmost parts of some states — Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota — forecasted to have a low likelihood of seeing the aurora.
This is just the latest round of northern lights that have been visible across the northern U.S. this year. It’s all thanks to the sun flipping its magnetic poles, an activity it does over an 11-year period.
“We’re right in the middle of that transition right now, we’re approaching it. When we hit the middle we call it solar maximum. It’s when we have the most sunspots, it’s when we get the most solar flares and eruptions,” Bill Murtagh, the program coordinator for NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, told News 2’s sister station, WROC.
CMEs are often seen during this process, which have contributed to recent auroras. The stronger those CMEs are, Murtagh explained, the further south the northern lights are visible.
“If you missed the activity a couple of weeks, last week and a few weeks ago, just know that we are ramping up to the solar maximum – we’re expecting it to occur between 2024-25 so essentially stay tuned, there’s more to come,” said Murtagh.