The northern lights could appear again in the US, but it’s too early to tell

Space forecasters say there’s a chance for a dazzling display of the northern lights, but it’s actually too early to tell for sure.


BOULDER, COLORADO – Space weather forecasters say there could be another dazzling display of the northern lights over parts of the United States next week, although it’s too early to tell for sure.

Forecasters gave stargazers in northern and Midwestern states hope for a spectacle in the sky Friday night into Saturday morning, but widespread sightings failed to materialize.

Now meteorologists have their eye on a group of sunspots responsible for the spectacular nationwide aurora display on May 10, which rotated back into view of Earth. That potentially sets the stage for another spectacle, said the federal Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. Simply put, those sunspots trigger solar storms that could cause auroras here on Earth.

But the uncertainty of the outlook – and the overnight disappointment – ​​shows that aurora forecasts can be finicky. Leading experts say it is still too early to confirm whether next week’s exhibition will go ahead.

A bigger Northern Lights show next week? It’s too early to tell.

Sometime next week, a widespread aurora event could be possible, forecasters said. Everything will depend on whether or not the Sun throws a solar flare and/or a coronal mass ejection towards the Earth, which would trigger geomagnetic storms and, therefore, the aurora.

Shawn Dahl, senior forecaster at SWPC, said that although the sunspot group known as Region 3697 has now rotated toward Earth, it is too early to say whether it will send another coronal mass ejection.

“We’re forecasting things from 93 million miles away, so it’s very difficult. And our science is limited,” Dahl said. “We can do a great job of predicting the likelihood of the flare occurring and, if so, what level it might reach, and the same with radiation storms, but we have no way of knowing whether a flare is imminent. That science “It doesn’t exist. And we also don’t have the science to know when a CME is going to explode in the sun.”

Sky watchers have their fingers crossed

Keen sky watchers have their fingers crossed, because June 6 is a new moon, meaning the skies will be darker and any auroras that appear will be more vibrant. Dahl, an amateur astronomer and night sky photographer who missed the May 10 display because he was working, said he is hopeful of seeing a new display caused by sunspots.

“We have no way of knowing if a CME can occur again, but the chances of an eruption are still high in this region,” he said.

Why is space weather so difficult to predict?

When exactly will the northern lights appear again? Conditions are set for more aurora shows in the coming years, but experts say even the best predictions can only be made accurately a few days or even hours in advance.

Unlike Earth’s weather, scientists who forecast space weather (which includes the aurora) must rely on observations of the sun, 150 million kilometers away, to make their predictions.

“There are so many uncertainties that it makes it difficult to predict,” Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at the Space Weather Prediction Center, told USA TODAY last year.

Hughes reported from Boulder, Colorado; Silver Spring Rice, Maryland.

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