GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The sun is currently in an “active cycle,” meaning there is an increase in sun spots and coronal mass ejections.
For those of us here on earth, it means an increased chance in seeing the northern lights.
HOW ACCURATE ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS FORECASTS?
Space weather prediction is still fairly unreliable, but it is accurate enough to be able to detect when the sun sends bursts of energy our way. Along with a possible disruption of GPS signals at very high latitudes, these electromagnetic bursts of energy can give us a good shot at seeing the northern lights!
Experts are reporting that the sun has generated a class C2.4 flare with a rough arrival time to Earth on Aug. 17 and 18.
Right now, it appears areas north of Lake Superior will have the best chance of seeing the aurora.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I WILL BE ABLE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
One of the best ways to determine if you can see the northern lights in your area is to pay attention to something called the ‘KP Index’ forecast. The KP Index forecast directly reflects who is most likely to see a northern lights event based on the strength and impact of the CME headed towards Earth.
Right now, the forecast for Aug. 17 and 18 is currently calling for a KP Index of higher than five. A high KP Index is also possible Sept. 3 and 4.
Just like a weather forecast, the KP Index can change. It is important to keep an eye on the forecast and to know that space weather is much less accurate than a daily weather forecast.
As a general rule of thumb:
- The Upper Peninsula sees the northern lights when the KP Index is 4-6
- West Michigan sees the northern lights when the KP Index is 6-8
Here is a picture to use as a guide, showing how far south an aurora event is visible based on the KP Index value.
WILL THE WEATHER ALLOW FOR GOOD VIEWING?
The weather will be on our side if the aurora decides to spring to life over West Michigan later this week. Night skies are expected to be mostly clear with dry conditions and low humidity.
The moon phase later this week will be a waning gibbous with more than 50% illumination. This and city lights could lessen the opportunity to spot the aurora on the nights of Aug. 17 and 18.
WHAT WILL IT LOOK LIKE?
On a clear night, the aurora often looks like a glowing hue of various greens, yellows, and purples. If you’re looking out over Lake Superior, you’ll see it reflect off the water. If you stare into the dark long enough, you’ll see the bands and and colors change slowly.
HOW DO I TAKE PICTURES OF IT?
To capture a picture of the aurora, a professional DSLR or mirrorless camera is your best bet. We’ve used the following camera settings for the pictures below. ISO 1600, F3.5, and a 25 second exposure. All photos were taken around the Marquette area.
Your ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. An outdoor picture on a sunny day would have your ISO at about 25. So in the dark, bumping it up to between 800-1600 will allow the camera to take in more light.
F-stops or aperture settings controls the amount of light that can pass through a lens depending on the shutter speed. Going with a wide open aperture, again will allow the maximum amount of light in your exposure.
Taking pictures in the dark means your camera shutter needs to be open as long as possible to process the available light. The same standard outdoor photo will snap the shutter in 1/120 of a second. At night, you can best capture the aurora on exposures as long as 15 and up to 30 seconds. The longer your exposure, you’ll start to notice some of the stars don’t appear as crisp. The world is turning, so at that length, you’re getting the rotation of the planet.
On some of the latest smart phones, there are pro settings where you can achieve a similar settings.
Whatever camera or phone you’re using, set it up on a tripod or stabilize the camera and a flat steady surface. Holding the camera for that long will not give you a quality photo, but if you just want to watch the aurora, it will let you know if you’re looking in the right direction.