The Northern Lights may appear again in the United States, but it’s too soon to tell

Space forecasters say there’s a possibility of a dazzling display of the Northern Lights, but it’s too soon to know for sure.


BOULDER, Colorado — Space weather forecasters say parts of the U.S. could be in for another dazzling display of the Northern Lights next week — but it’s too early to know for sure.

Forecasters expected stargazers in northern and upper Midwestern states to expect a show in the skies Friday night into Saturday morning, but widespread sightings did not materialize.

Now forecasters are keeping their eyes peeled for a cluster of sunspots across the country responsible for the May 10 aurora display, which has swung back into view of Earth. This sets the conditions for another scenario of federalism Space Weather Prediction Center Boulder, Colorado, said. Simply put, those sunspots trigger solar storms that can trigger auroras on Earth.

But the uncertainty of the outlook — and the overnight disappointment — shows that aurora predictions can be finicky. Top experts say it’s too early to confirm whether next week’s show will happen.

Will the Great Northern Lights show up next week? It will be known very soon.

Sometime next week, a widespread aurora event is possible, forecasters said. It depends on whether or not the Sun emits solar flares and/or coronal mass ejections toward Earth, which can trigger geomagnetic storms and induce auroras.

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Shawn Dahl, SWPC’s senior forecaster, said that although the sunspot group, known as Region 3697, has now turned toward Earth, it is too early to tell if it will send another coronal mass ejection.

“We’re predicting objects 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 probability of a heat event, and if so, the extent to which radiation storms are likely to occur, as well as radiation storms, but we don’t know when a spark is imminent. And we don’t have the science to know that a CME will erupt from the Sun.

Skywatchers are crossing their fingers

Avid skywatchers are crossing their fingers because June 6 is a new moon, meaning the sky will be extra dark and any aurora that appears will be extra vibrant. Dahl, an amateur astronomer and photographer of the night sky who missed the May 10 display because of work, said he was optimistic about the new display caused by sunspots.

“We have no way of knowing if it will produce a CME again, but the probabilities of an expansion in this region are still high,” he said.

Why is space weather so difficult to predict?

When will the northern lights reappear? Conditions are primed for more aurora shows over the next few years, but experts say even the best predictions can be made days or hours in advance.

Unlike terrestrial weather, scientists forecasting space weather — which includes the aurora — must rely on observations of the Sun 93 million miles away to make their predictions.

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“There are so many uncertainties, it’s hard to predict,” Bill Murdock, program coordinator for the Space Weather Prediction Center, told USA TODAY last year.

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

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