MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) – Light, camera, action! Some might think this spectacular light show only happens at the North Pole, but in the darkest parts of northern and upper Michigan, it could happen right in your back yard.
The aurora borealis, or the northern lights, are caused by solar winds interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Northern Lights are created by the solar plasma and solar wind that sort of launches off the surface of the sun and flies toward our planet, and when that solar plasma enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it collides with the air molecules like oxygen and nitrogen to create the northern lights,” said Melissa Kaelin, the founder of the Michigan Aurora Chasers Facebook page.
A lot of things go in to predicting whether or not you will be able to see the aurora, such as the Kp index, light pollution, and also the weather. It’s best to go aurora chasing when there aren’t any clouds in the sky.
“Here in the U.P. it’s a challenge for a good part of the fall through winter because we’re usually dealing with lake effect clouds and things like that,” said Matt Zika, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Marquette. “So, if there is a day where we know the winds will be favorable for us not to have a lot of cloudiness, and the solar storms, or solar flares align, those would be the days where we’d encourage folks to at least maybe get out and see if the northern lights are visible.”
Another important part of aurora viewing is avoiding light pollution.
“Get out of light pollution, get to the darkest skies you can find,” said Kaelin. “When you’re seeing stars, that’s a good sign. You have to avoid things like fog, and mist, and wildfire smoke. Any of those different hazy conditions can make it harder to see those colors and movement in the sky. Also a full moon can really wash out the colors of the northern lights. We’re trying to see this rare mystery that can be so subtle, and sometimes it can be so bright and yes, colorful, even in Michigan.”
The Kp index is a way that we can predict where the northern lights will be visible. This is a measure of the level of geomagnetic activity. The index ranges on a scale from 0 to 9. The higher numbers indicate that the lights will be brighter and more vivid. They will also be seen by more people due to the lights falling further south.
The northern lights typically do not appear as vibrant to the naked eye. They will end up looking like a soft gray or green haze. The best way to recognize the lights is by their movements. If you want more information on how to photograph the northern lights, you can find a story about it here.
The best way to keep track of the northern lights is to follow websites like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction center. If you want to know more about the latest Kp index forecast or you want to learn more about the science of the aurora borealis, you can find their website here.
You can also find Facebook groups like the Michigan Aurora Chasers to find more information and a community of chasers who will provide live updates on where the lights are visible. They also provide a lot of beginners resources. You can find their Facebook page here.
It’s also a great idea to check your local weather forecast before you head out! You can find a live interactive radar, a local weather forecast and our Local 3 Weather Livestream here.