Dazzling aurora borealis could reach the lower 48 this week

Thanks to a massive solar flare, sky-watchers may be able to indulge in an array of colorful northern lights forecasted to appear on Thursday and Friday.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
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A nighttime photo taken from the International Space Station of the aurora borealis over the Midwest US in 2012. NASA

Here's to hoping for clear skies. A stunning show of colorful aurora borealis, or northern lights, is forecast for Thursday and Friday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center. And, what's more, they could be seen as far south as Washington, Illinois, Michigan, and even down the Rockies to Colorado.

"The CME [coronal mass ejection] is forecast to set off G3 (Strong) Geomagnetic Storm activity through January 9 and 10," NOAA wrote on its prediction center site on Wednesday. "Aurora watchers should be ready."

The glimmering cloud-like lights will be due to an intense solar flare that burst off the sun on Tuesday causing a massive solar phenomenon that sends charged particles hurtling toward Earth. When these particles crash into the planet's protective magnetic field, they light up the atmosphere wherever they hit.

"These particles cannot travel through the atmosphere to harm humans on Earth, but they can affect electronic systems in satellites and on the ground," NASA said in a statement. "When intense enough -- they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. This disrupts the radio signals for as long as the flare is ongoing, anywhere from minutes to hours."

Several solar flares ejected off the sun last year, giving aurora viewers some spectacular sightings. Last January, the largest solar radiation storm since 2005 caused the lights to glow throughout the North and South Poles. And even in November, onlookers were able to get a peek at some beautiful auroras.

Typically the aurora borealis are green, but sometimes they can be red, blue, and greenish-yellow.

Here is an aurora forecast map from NOAA updated to the time of this writing:

Here is a NASA video of the solar flare on Tuesday: