The Aurora (northern Lights) and when it’s really most likely to see them in Virginia and West Virginia

Aurora over Arkansas. Image courtesy of Brad Emfinger.
Aurora over Arkansas. Image courtesy of Brad Emfinger.
Published: Aug. 19, 2022 at 3:21 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 26, 2022 at 12:20 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - We are currently in solar cycle 25 and it is a more active period with the sun. You may see headlines at times claiming that the northern lights can be see further south, but that’s often not very realistic.

While during strong solar storms or geomatic storms that move toward Earth, it is possible to see the northern lights this far south, it is rare and does not happen often. It takes a strong solar storm to produce the aurora this far south.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Space weather prediction is incredibly challenging. Forecasting space weather is very different from forecasting surface weather. So there are many more challenges and it is much more difficult which can lead to disappointment especially with borderline solar storms. Here is the main page of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction site:

HTML Image as link Space Weather

To produce a strong aurora, you need a strong geomagnetic storm. When a G3 storm is forecast by NOAA, that may produce a very faight aurora along the horizon for parts of Virginia and West Virginia. At times, this may only be seen with a camera and possibly not even with the naked eye.

This photo below from Peter Forister was taken during a weaker geomagnetic storm and while he captured the aurora with the camera, he did state that it wasn’t exactly visible to the naked eye.

Ideally, to see the northern lights in our area you would want a G4 or a G5 solar storm, and these types of storms are very rare. These are not weather types of storms, these are solar storms. The stronger the solar storm, the more likely radio blackouts or GPS issues.

If you look at the chart below, the Aurora with a G4 storm can be seen as far south as Alabama and with a G5 storm, the aurora can be seen as far south as Texas and Florida. So you know that seeing the Aurora that far south is rare, and that’s how rare a solar storm of this magnitude is.

From NOAA Space Weather Prediction Site
From NOAA Space Weather Prediction Site(NOAA)

Kp Index

The Kp index is something you can use to gauge if the aurora will be visible in the mid-latitudes. While a G3 solar storm, or Kp index of 7 can at times produce a faint glow of the northern lights on the horizon, you would really be looking for a Kp index of 8 or 9 for better viewing in Virginia and West Virginia. The image below shows the map of the Kp index lines.

If you click the image that will take you to the current Kp index with past data for 3 days. If you want the Kp index forecast, the text data is accessible by clicking here:

HTML Image as link Kp Index

Subscribe to solar storm forecasts

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You can get an alert when a powerful solar storm is forecast. After you sign up you can click on the Geomagnetic Storm subscription option and then select a K-index of 8 or 9. Aurora viewing is possible locally with a K-index of 7 in the mid latitudes but it would be very faint and on the horizon.

LINKS AND RESOURCES

Current solar cycle

HTML Image as link Solar Cycle