Sorry if we got your hopes up.
Earlier in the week, multiple news outlets — likely all using Associated Press wire copy — proclaimed the aurora borealis, or the northern lights, would be visible in 17 states, including Maryland.
Unfortunately, it’s just not true. The latest forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center shows, at most, a slight chance to view the northern lights in parts of Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
A forecast from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute says more or less the same.
Matthew Cappucci, a D.C.-based meteorologist, said the northern lights “won’t even get halfway here” this week. His theory for how the forecast became so widespread is that a wire agency — like the Associated Press — picked up an outdated forecast for long-range solar activity and ran with it over the weekend. From there, other news agencies picked up the story, including The Baltimore Banner.
But it’s not an accurate forecast, Cappucci said. A weekend forecast of solar activity for the coming Thursday or Friday can’t be very accurate, he said, because we can’t predict solar activity with much precision beyond a three-day window. The original story suggested peak times to view the aurora and listed specific U.S. states that it would be visible in, other details that bothered Cappucci.
“They indicated a level of specificity that suggests we know more than we actually do,” he said. “We just don’t have that level of precision, we don’t have that level of accuracy.”
The aurora borealis is the result of electrons from the sun colliding with Earth’s atmosphere. The electrons combine with and excite molecules already in the atmosphere, and the molecules then release light, similar to how neon lights work.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, which publishes forecasts of auroral activity, put out a statement earlier this week addressing “predictions” of activity “making the rounds.”
“This prediction, several days ahead of time, is based on models run by the Space Weather Prediction Center, a part of NOAA, and located in Boulder, Colorado. The Geophysical Institute does not make long-term auroral predictions. Our aurora forecast is from SWPC,” associate professor Don Hampton, a space physicist, said in the statement. “The accuracy of the models to predict the auroral activity depend strongly on the accuracy and number of input measurements of the activity on the sun and the intervening space where the solar wind is flowing and evolving after it leaves the sun. There are only a few satellites and instruments dedicated to collecting these data, so the models typically have a wide range of predictions since the observations are relatively sparse.”
The Associated Press story about the northern lights cited a forecast from the Geophysical Institute. On the institute’s website, the forecast has since been updated, and the old forecast is no longer visible.
While the chances of seeing the aurora in Maryland are basically nonexistent this week, there’s reason to believe they could be visible here in the near future.
The sun operates in approximately 11-year cycles, and we are approaching what’s known as “solar maximum,” said Bryan Brasher, a project manager at the Space Weather Prediction Center. That means there are more sunspots and more solar activity that can affect Earth.
Sunspots are areas of strong magnetic force on the sun’s surface. Plasma and magnetic fields hurled from the sun can hit Earth and interact with our atmosphere — that’s what creates the aurora. Especially strong magnetic activity from the sun can negatively affect satellite and radio communications and GPS technology. The Space Weather Prediction Center exists in part to help prepare for solar activity so sensitive industries can protect themselves from solar activity.
Earlier this year, there were geomagnetic storms that meant the northern lights were visible as far south as Arizona. In April, the lights were visible in parts of Maryland and Virginia.