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What are the northern lights? When can you view them in Michigan?

Posted at 2:04 PM, Jun 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-07 14:04:05-04

LANSING, Mich. — In past couple of months, there have been a few chances to see the northern lights in mid-Michigan, but when can you expect to see them?

For starters, the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, happen when energized particles from the sun hit the Earth's atmosphere creating the beautiful dancing lights we see.

When more energy comes to Earth, the father south you can see the northern lights. Why is that?

Well, normally, the Earth's magnetic field curves the energy from the sun to the north and south poles, but when there are more charged particles, the farther away from the poles the lights can be seen.

As for the different colors, those are caused by the charged electrons colliding with other molecules in Earth's atmosphere, and the resulting excitation of these collisions cause the different colors based on the height and type of molecules that they collide with.

Pink auroras are caused by a collision with nitrogen molecules below 100 kilometers, green auroras are caused by a collision with oxygen molecules 100 to 200 kilometers up, blue auroras are caused by a collision with nitrogen molecules 100 to 200 kilometers up and red auroras are caused by a collision with oxygen molecules above kilometers.

How scientists measure the amount of energy coming from the sun is through the Planetary K-index, which is denoted through a Kp symbol. So, when we forecast the northern lights, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other groups will measure it on a scale from 1 to 9 Kp-indices.

When the K-index reaches 5, the Upper Peninsula has a shot at seeing the lights, and when the forecast is at 6, parts of mid-Michigan and north of there might see them. When the forecast is at 7, all of Michigan has a chance of seeing the aurora borealis.

In order to see the light show, you need to get away from the city lights and let your eyes adjust. You can start sky gazing by looking north, but the lights could be straight above you. The best times to see the lights are well after sunset and after twilight.

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