(847) 551-3000

Rare Chance to see the Northern Lights

Rare Chance to see the Northern Lights

  • Posted by Barrington Hills
  • On December 10, 2020

It will be a soggy, possibly snowy weekend in Chicago.
But first, there’s an opportunity to see the northern lights in northern Illinois.

DEC 09, 2020 

Before you break out a parka for weekend snow, break out your bucket list: The northern lights may be visible in northern Illinois, saving weather enthusiasts the trouble of a trip to Canada or Alaska.

The aurora borealis, most often seen above or near the Arctic Circle, could be visible as far south as roughly the Wisconsin state line Wednesday or possibly Thursday, forecasters said Wednesday.

Speaking from Colorado by phone Wednesday, Rodney Viereck, a scientist with the National Space Weather Prediction Center, said the event is the result of a solar flare that will create a geomagnetic storm.

“There are several types of space weather storms, and this part of the event started with a moderate solar flare at the sun,” he said. “Geomagnetic storms impact things like the electric power grid, satellite navigation and GPS, but what people most often associate with geomagnetic storms is the aurora.”

Viereck, as well as astronomers at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, said timing is the all-important component. The flare could arrive between Wednesday night and Friday. There are myriad factors that must occur for the lights to be visible, most important of which is it happening at night. But for those who have always wanted to see them but have never traveled to Canada or Alaska, where the lights are visible much of the year, the opportunity is a rare treat.

“It’s looking like it will probably arrive (Thursday). It’s difficult to pinpoint more than that. We can see it leave the sun and we kind of guess at its speed, but there are 93 million miles it has to travel,” Viereck said. “It’s sort of like a hurricane leaving the coast of Africa, and we have to wait and see when it will hit the United States.”

Astronomers Michelle Nichols and Geza Gyuk from the Adler Planetarium said in an email that “Aurorae are very difficult to predict accurately, and just because they are predicted doesn’t mean they will be seen.”

Relatively speaking, the solar flare is small. But Viereck said it is “just perfectly aligned” and “is coming straight to earth.”

The alignment should prompt a moderate geomagnetic storm, which makes the northern lights visible in parts of the country where they’re not usually seen. Viereck said it has been about two or three years since there was a storm of this potential magnitude.

Those wishing to take a chance at seeing the aurora should follow four steps, he said:

  • Go as far north as possible. It is more likely you will see the northern lights the farther north you go.
  • The lights are “really most brilliant and exciting to look at within an hour or two of midnight,” Viereck said. Be ready to stay up from at least 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. in pursuit of the lights.
  • Get away from the city lights. “The darker the sky, the better you can see it,” Viereck advised.
  • Find a location where you can see the horizon to the north. Getting vertical will help, so a hill or tall building is ideal. Unless you’re really far north, such as Minnesota or Canada, the lights will not be overhead, rather in the distance to the north.

Viereck said the geomagnetic storm isn’t inherently rare, and it is possible the northern lights could be visible in the U.S. as often as quarterly. This time, things just look to be set up for a better view.

“It could line up perfectly if the timing is just right and it comes in strong, but of course, there are lots of caveats,” he said. “And nobody is perfect on these sorts of predictions. It’s like the weather — we do our best.”

Nichols and Gyuk from the Adler also stressed the uncertain nature of the potential event.

“Sometimes you just get lucky,” they said.

By Friday night, northern Illinois residents will want to turn their eyes to the sky for a different reason, said Kevin Birk, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Chicago may not get much in the way of snow, but a system rife with moisture will move through beginning Friday afternoon, leading to a mostly wet weekend, he said.

“Looking at things, it appears this storm system is going to go in a track where most of Chicago is going to see mostly rain from this. But areas to the north or northwest might end up with a snowstorm,” he said.

Birk said the Rockford area and parts of McHenry County could get as much as 6 inches of snow if the system moves as expected.

“It’s certainly worth watching here because it’s got a lot of moisture in it,” Birk said.

That means once the system arrives late Friday afternoon, it should begin to rain and rarely let up for more than 24 hours.