Lucky Americans, particularly across the northern Midwest, have been treated this week to a brilliant lightshow: the Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis. It's an unpredictable phenomenon, but experts believe the current streak may continue through the next couple of evenings.
The states with the best odds of seeing this batch of Northern Lights include Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Michigan, Maine, and New York may also catch a glimpse of the aurora, depending on how precisely the solar storm that's causing them plays out.
That's all according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, which monitors aurora. That's not simply out of an appreciation for the beautiful things in life—Northern Lights displays are actually caused by giant hiccups of incredibly hot charged particles called plasma ejected by our sun.
While auroras themselves are harmlessly awesome, those plasma hiccups can interfere with communications and GPS technology. So the Space Weather Prediction Center keeps a close eye on the sun and looks for signs its antics will cause a geomagnetic storm here on Earth.
Auroras are caused by those hot charged plasma particles colliding with molecules in Earth's atmosphere. During the collision, the particles give those air molecules a tiny packet of energy, which looks to the human eye like a bust of colorful light.
Typically, the Northern Lights are only visible in a ring around the pole, at about the latitudes of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and northern Russia. But when the sun releases more plasma than usual more strongly than usual, the display can creep farther south. A burst of aurora in September was visible across a similar swath of the U.S. as this one, although the storm that caused that cluster was stronger.
Australia has also been graced with the southern hemisphere's equivalent, which is known as the aurora australis instead of the aurora borealis.
If you live in one of the states that may be able to see the Northern Lights, you'll want to make your way to someplace very dark, away from the city lights. You'll also want to bundle up and need a clear sky for the best odds of spotting an aurora. Then, settle in to wait: Auroras can't be predicted precisely, so you'll need some good luck. If you do spot the lights, they'll likely last about a half hour.
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