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Hoping to see the aurora borealis? Forecast shows Friday night in northern Vermont is your best bet

A photo of a horizon that is black below and above, a starry sky with a few scattered clouds shows green and purple light streaking toward the top of the photo.
The aurora borealis, pictured here in Barre, will likely be most visible to Vermonters in the northern part of the state after midnight tonight.

National space weather forecasters have issued a "Severe (G4) Geomagnetic Storm Watch" for tonight— rare conditions that can produce the colorful lights of the aurora borealis in the night sky as far south as northern California and Alabama.

And in Vermont, clouds are expected to mostly clear in the northern part of the state past midnight. That's according to National Weather Service Burlington meteorologist Eric Myskowski.

"Right now it's going to be cloudy for most of the rest of the day, but the clouds will gradually diminish overnight," he says.

Myskowski adds that any showers during the day today should dissipate, too.

He says the forecast looks cloudier across Vermont for Saturday night — when geomagnetic storm conditions could continue.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center says it has been monitoring solar flares and coronal mass ejections — when plasma and magnetic fields explode from the sun's corona — since Wednesday. And auroras occur when that solar activity triggers geomagnetic storms.

Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium senior meteorologist Mark Breen explains the phenomenon as subatomic particles from the sun reaching the earth and getting pulled down Earth's magnetic fields from its north and south poles.

"And so as they travel through the atmosphere, it's like this kind of little charge that comes through, and it causes the gases in the atmosphere to glow," Breen says. "So things like oxygen and nitrogen — part of our atmosphere — start glowing because of this energy that's coming in. Sort of like a, almost like a fluorescent tube without a tube, it's kind of loose."

As for what that aurora could look like here, Breen says it could be a dramatic sight.

"It may appear as though the Northern Lights will be almost radiating from a point above you, and so it could cover a large portion of the sky — 60, 70, 80% of the sky," Breen says, "In its least form — especially with the strength of this [geomagnetic storm] — you certainly would see perhaps some curtains of light, or perhaps some streaks of light in the northern third of the sky."

The best way to view the aurora, Breen says, is to find a spot where the northern horizon is visible, away from as many artificial lights as possible.

In addition to producing auroras, these geomagnetic storms can disrupt communications, electrical and navigation technologies in near-Earth orbit or on the planet's surface. In 1989, for instance, the Hydro-Quebec power grid failed and experienced a nine-hour blackout.

That kind of thing isn't very common, according to Breen, though he says that with an increasing number of communication satellites in orbit, space companies are having to protect that equipment with special shields.

And more intense solar-induced geomagnetic storms could be on the way in the near future. Breen points out that this happens every 11 years, when the sun's magnetic field completely flips.

"And right now, the sun's near its maximum cycle," Breen says. "And so over the next few years, while we may not have severe storms like this, but it's at least possible that Northern Lights would be more common, let's say in the next few years, than they would be several years from now."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
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