First Alert Weather In-Depth: Looking for the Northern Lights

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – If you have ever seen the northern lights or what we call aurora borealis, it can be a spectacular sight.  In my 35 years of forecasting the weather here in Western New York, I have only seen the northern lights on two occasions.

What is the mechanism or the process for seeing this amazing view in nature? We know we got the Earth and the magnetic field.  But the important player is the sun, the solar wind, and the charged particles that are emitted from the sun. These energized particles then interact with our magnetic field. But what these particles are really looking for is the path of least resistance. And that path is going to be the north and the south pole. As these particles enter the atmosphere, the electrons collide with molecules in our atmosphere. Think of these collisions as another way of exciting the molecules. And depending on the height of the molecules, and the type of molecule, this is a determining factor in the type of colors we see.

Obviously, the conditions for the viewing are very important.  At least through tonight and into tomorrow night, there will be an increase in solar activity and there are several solar eruptions that are taking place.

As a result, we should see a little more consistency with a greater chance of seeing the northern lights. On the negative side, there is the potential for some cloud cover. And the question is will the clouds interrupt our viewing? If you are planning on going outside the recommendation is to get to a dark place and look to the north near Lake Ontario. And there are certainly no guarantees, but maybe, just maybe, we can get a decent view of the aurora borealis.