Why Can I See the Northern Lights From Chicago and New York?

The sun set off an explosion, which sounds...alarming.

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This weekend, if you're on the eastern side of the country and under clear skies, you might spot the world-famous Northern Lights in New York, D.C., Chicago, or a handful of other states—without having to fly to Iceland, Finland, Norway, or the any of the places in the world where you stand a chance of seeing the Northern Lights on the regular. Which brings me to: Why?

Well, I did some digging (I am not, unfortunately, a Northern Lights expert), and discovered that the whole thing is sparked by the sun—specifically, an explosion caused by the sun, which sounds mildly terrifying. Here's what normally occurs: On the sun's surface, there can be these huge explosions of electromagnetic matter, which toss out these electricity-infused solar particles called "solar wind" into space. Some of these reach Earth's North and South Poles a few days later, and when they do, our planet's magnetic field heats up and then loses excess energy—which happens in the form of a light display. This light display can only be seen at night, when the skies are relatively clear, and they can stretch for hundreds of miles.

Usually, you can only spot this light display close-ish to the North Pole (or the South Pole, if that's where the solar wind hit), and in high-latitude places—Greenland, Norway, parts of Canada, etc. But this weekend, they'll stretch even further and be even brighter than usual, thanks to a particularly gigantic explosion on the sun's part, which has sent even more charged particles (known as coronal mass ejection) to Earth than usual—meaning the light show will potentially stretch as far as the northern United States.

Obviously, skies would have to be clear for this to be the case, but if you're far enough from light pollution and in one of the eastern states—New York, Wisconsin, Washington State, New Jersey, Illinois, and D.C. are all thought to be privy to this weekend's light show—then you might just get lucky. Tweeted astronomer Con Stoitsis: "This [solar storm] is dense & strong so it could pack a decent punch!"

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In the U.S., the farther north you live, the better your chances. So whenever you're enjoying the beauty of a very dark night sky, remember to look to the north in case there is an aurora then. In the southern hemisphere, the farther south you live, the better the aurora viewing.

Happy light-watching!

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