Several states have the rare chance to spot the northern lights this week


(CBS News) — A rare and spectacular view of the northern lights is possible this week over several U.S. states, possibly as far south as New York, due to a strong geomagnetic storm.

After months of rest, the sun recently began a new 11-year cycle of activity. This activity will peak sometime in 2025, but in the years prior, solar activity, such as strong solar flares, will become more common, increasing the chances of seeing the aurora at lower latitudes.

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), a coronal mass ejection on December 7 shot plasma and magnetic field toward Earth. These solar storms are the source of northern lights, also known as aurora borealis.

“A geomagnetic storm is a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere that occurs when there is a very efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth,” according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “The largest storms that result from these conditions are associated with solar coronal mass ejections where a billion tons or so of plasma from the sun, with its embedded magnetic field, arrives at Earth.”

While this space weather creates beautiful aurora, it can also disrupt communications systems — so don’t be surprised if you notice static while listening to the radio or disruptions in your GPS this week.

How to watch

Weather permitting, look toward the clear, dark night sky for a dazzling show of highly active northern lights, which may be visible in areas that do not normally see them due to the strength of the storm. The event is even more exciting as the most popular travel destinations to see the aurora — Iceland, Finland and Sweden — are currently prohibited due to the coronavirus pandemic.

NOAA’s Geomagnetic Storm Index, which measures the magnitude of solar activity, predicts a Planetary K Index of 7 out of 9 with G3 storm levels. The yellow line on NOAA’s map indicates the furthest southward potential for the northern lights.


Rare aurora activity could occur as far south as Oregon, Idaho, Illinois, Pennsylvania  — and even parts of New York. More northern states like Washington, Montana and Maine also have a chance to glimpse the colorful display.

NOAA indicates that geomagnetic storm watches are in effect from December 9 to December 11. Activity is likely to increase as these effects continue.

Aurora comes in several different shapes. They often appear as tall rays that look like folds of fabric, and sometimes stretch into arcs, twisting and swaying as if affected by wind. In the early morning hours, they can even appear cloud-like.

To better your chance of seeing the northern lights, escape the pollution of the city and look north, a little above the horizon. The farther north you are, the better chance you have of spotting the aurora, which last all night long. Sunlight and clouds will be your biggest obstacles to viewing.

The northern lights are far from the only celestial event taking place this month. The Geminid meteor shower peaks next week, and on December 21, Jupiter and Saturn make their closest visible approach to Earth since the Middle Ages, known as the great conjunction.