Auroras could be super-charged tonight for people as far south as Iowa as a solar storm batters Earth’s magnetic field. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center is predicting that there could be “strong to extreme” levels of solar storming activity taking place Thursday night for people in the United States. This means that the northern and southern lights — which usually are only visible in the high latitudes — might be visible for people in light-pollution-free areas as low as Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oregon, according to the SWPC.
These kinds of solar storms can also cause disruptions to electrical grids on Earth and even do harm to satellites and people in space. At the moment, the SWCP is warning that the geomagnetic storm might reach the G3 level or higher (on a scale that goes up to G5), producing a possible K index of 7 — an index measuring auroras worldwide on a scale that goes up to 9. SWPC forecasters think that this geomagnetic activity is likely being caused by the “lingering effects” of a burst of hot plasma, called a coronal mass ejection, shot from the sun earlier this month.
To up your chances of seeing either the northern or southern lights Thursday night, you can check out the SWPC’s aurora forecast tool, which will tell you whether the ring of the celestial lights may appear in your latitude. Auroras are caused when charged particles from the sun are drawn down to near Earth’s poles along magnetic field lines. Some of those particles make it to the planet’s upper atmosphere, hitting and exciting neutral particles already in Earth’s atmosphere. The stronger the solar storm, the lower the ring of the aurora can extend.