(NEXSTAR) – Earlier this year, those living as far south as Alabama were treated to a special celestial treat: not aliens, but the aurora borealis. Since then, most in the U.S. haven’t had the chance to see the northern lights, despite hopes that they would dance to the south amid an active space weather period.
So where are the northern lights?
“It’s a little bit of a crapshoot,” Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the SWPC and seasoned space weather forecaster, tells Nexstar. “We’ve had just as many eruptions occur since [spring], but we just haven’t been lucky – or unlucky, whichever way you look at it.”
Certain conditions have to be met for any part of the Lower 48 to see the northern lights. Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, play a major role in that.
CMEs are explosions of plasma and magnetic material from the sun, NOAA explains. While CMEs and solar flares (which can occur simultaneously) can impact navigation, communication and radio signals here on Earth, CMEs are able to create stunning shows in the night sky.
The explosions essentially create currents in our planet’s magnetic fields, sending particles to the north and south poles. As those particles interact with oxygen and nitrogen, they can create auroras. The overall interaction is known as a geomagnetic storm. Multiple storms impacted Earth this spring, bringing the northern lights to multiple states.
This activity is largely thanks to our current stage in the solar cycle. During this 11-year period, which is currently Solar Cycle 25, the sun flips its magnetic poles, fueling space weather like CMEs, Rob Steenburgh, a space scientist with NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, explains.
When we’re in the peak of the solar cycle, CMEs are common, occurring about two times a day, Steenburgh says.
If that’s the case, why haven’t we seen the northern lights much?
Unfortunately, the magnitude of space is largely to blame. The majority of eruptions coming from the sun don’t come to Earth. There is still a lot of activity on the sun — you can see it reported on this NOAA graph — but the eruptions aren’t occurring in the 40- to 50-degree window that face Earth, Murtagh explains.
“But, the sun continues with these bigger eruptions that are just not hitting us, and that could change next week,” he says. “Next week, we could get back-to-back eruptions in the next several weeks, the next couple of months.”
Don’t lose hope just yet though. We’re approaching the maximum phase of Solar Cycle 25, Murtagh says. It has also been rising faster and appears bigger than originally predicted.
“The [solar] cycle is rising faster and when it rises faster, it’s typically bigger,” Murtagh previously told Nexstar. “The bigger the cycle, the more eruptions [on the Sun], the more likely we see the aurora, bottom line.”
While it can be difficult to tell when exactly the U.S. will have the chance to see the aurora borealis, NOAA does offer single-day and next-day forecasts for potential northern light viewing.
If you live in a central or southern state, you’ll need to hope for larger geomagnetic storms, like a G-3, 4, or 5. And should the stars align to give you the chance to see the northern lights, be sure to move to a dark space away from city lights — and check the moon cycle. A full, bright moon can outshine the aurora near you, according to Murtagh.
It’s also important to note that while eruptions on the sun can lead to a stunning nighttime show, geomagnetic storms can pose a challenge to some of our infrastructure.
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As Steenburgh previously explained to Nexstar, mild or moderate geomagnetic storms can cause weak fluctuations in the power grid and impact satellite operations on spacecraft. Stronger storms can lead to power blackouts, radio issues, and problems with navigation systems, including those on aircraft. Thankfully, the SWPC is able to communicate with infrastructure officials to ensure everything continues running smoothly.
“When you see that aurora, take a moment for us,” Murtagh says. “We’re going to be hopping, it’s going to be very busy, and we’re doing everything we can to keep that infrastructure up and running, so nobody even knows there’s a negative side to that lovely aurora.”