The celestial display known as the Northern Lights can grace Chicago’s skies Wednesday evening through Thursday morning, captivating eager spectators throughout the city.
Also known as the aurora borealis, the lights can be visible on the low horizon in Chicago and seen from above in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, according to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
Those lights could also be visible in 16 other states besides Illinois, including Michigan, Indiana, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Illinois Storm Chasers’ Billy Reed said you need clear weather to see the northern lights, so the storm and rain forecast for Wednesday in Chicago could make it harder for people to catch a glimpse.
“At this stage, when it’s two or three days away, it’s really hard to predict what the cloud cover will be particularly after storms,” said Reed, geographic information systems specialist for space weather with Storm Chasers.
Weather and conditions permitting, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center, the best viewing times in Chicago are 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM.
Michelle Nichols, director of public viewing at the Adler Planetarium, said the auroras and the weather conditions needed to see them can be unpredictable and rapidly changing, so there really is no perfect time.
“Even though they’re scheduled for Wednesday night through Thursday morning, we really don’t know when exactly to send people,” Nichols said.
In Chicago, anyone wanting to see the Northern Lights should avoid downtown. Light pollution can make that more difficult, especially since the aurora borealis is dim at first, said Adam Miller, a professor of astronomy at Northwestern University.
“If you could find a relatively open field with lines of sight to the north that was in a dark place, and if you gave your eyes the opportunity to adjust to the dark ambient light, that would increase your chances of being able to see the aurora.” Miler said.
In general, the darker the area, the better the show, Nichols added, while Reed said to allow about 30 minutes for the eyes to adjust to the dark.
Assuming the lights are visible Wednesday night, Miller said, viewers should expect green or red hues.
Auroras occur when charged particles from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field. The particles get trapped in the magnetic field, then move towards the magnetic poles of the planet. When charged particles interact with atoms high up in Earth’s atmosphere, they cause atmospheric gases to glow, which creates the different colors people see in the auroras. The types of atoms help determine what colors appear.
Miller said it’s rare to see the Northern Lights as far south as Chicago. In April, the Northern Lights were visible in all parts of Illinois.
Auroras tend to occur when there’s more solar activity, like sunspots, and we’re approaching a period of increased activity known as solar maximum, Miller said.
“It’s not unusual that there could be more events like this now and possibly in the coming months,” Miller said.
For Nichols, the beauty of the aurora borealis is watching what is essentially the sun touching the earth’s magnetic field.
“You’re seeing the interaction between the Sun and the Earth,” Nichols said. “That in itself is amazing. We are not two completely separate objects in the universe. One interacts with the other and you see it.