Northwest residents may be in for a special treat over the next few nights. A massive solar flare moved toward Earth Wednesday, opening the possibility a northern lights effect could be visible in latitudes as low as Oregon. The event could last into New Year’s Eve.
The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration is predicting a strong G3 geomagnetic storm in the Earth’s atmosphere could provide views of the aurora borealis for many people in the Northwest over the next two evenings.
“The prediction says we’re probably going to see something after midnight, before dawn, and then again tomorrow night for New Year’s Eve,” said Jim Todd, director of space science education at OMSI in Portland.
According to NOAA’s classification system, a G3 geomagnetic storm is considered strong, and can cause interruptions to power services in some areas. It also creates a stronger aurora which may be visible further south than normal. An aurora is caused when a solar storm interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere, charging particles in the Earth’s atmosphere and releasing light in the process.
“The color is based on what element is being charged, which is usually nitrogen and oxygen, therefore giving it the red and the green glow,” Todd said. “Kind of like a neon light, you get that charge and you get that glow.”
Seeing the northern lights requires a clear view of the Northern horizon, something residents in the Willamette Valley aren’t used to during the winter months. But an updated National Weather Service forecast predicts mostly clear skies for much of Western Oregon over the next few days and into the weekend.
“Over the next few nights we’re going see some fog developing in the south and central Willamette Valley, impacting Salem, Eugene and areas near there. In the Portland area, we should stay mostly clear, especially on the east side of the metro, though on the west side we could see some patchy fog developing,” said Laurel McCoy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The Oregon Coast is expected to remain mostly clear throughout the next few evenings as well.
According to Todd, the key to actually making the most of these clear skies involves getting away from city lights.
“You want to get away from the city lights as much as possible,” he said. “The key thing is looking towards the north and having a clear view of the horizon. No buildings.”
Moonlight can also be a problem, obstructing the visibility of the aurora, but Todd said the moon is expected to rise late over the next few days and shouldn’t hinder early viewing.
Todd recommends looking for the aurora around midnight Wednesday night and before dawn Thursday. The aurora borealis may also be visible late evening on New Year’s Eve.