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

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – It is the Aurora Borealis or what is more commonly known as the Northern Lights. And it appears we have an opportunity to see this elusive optical event on Monday night across Western New York. Sometimes the Northern Lights can be very muted and difficult to see as you look across the northern horizon. Sometimes on rare occasions they can be bright and vivid. And even more spectacular are the appearance of a mix of colors, such as green, blue and red. 

On a personal note, I have had the opportunity of viewing the lights on numerous occasions in Rochester, but it was just two events over nearly 40 years that really had a “wow” factor. And that really illustrates for me how rare these optical events can be. 

So what is the mechanism that produces the aurora? It starts with the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth. And that field has a North Pole and South Pole. We then introduce the solar wind which is constantly being emitted from the sun. However, every once in a while there is a solar storm which is called a solar mass ejection or CME. This CME sends out packets of energy that flows across the solar system, and if the storm is pointed in the right direction, it will then interact with our magnetic field. Those packets of energy look for points of weakness in the magnetic field and that is most often the North and South Pole. This energy is made up of elections that collide with nitrogen and oxygen molecules in our atmosphere. These molecules will then get excited or energized and, if there is enough energy available, light is emitted. The colors are based on the type of molecules that are encountered.

To view the aurora you want to get away from any kind of artificial light and look to the north. However, the most important thing is to have good weather conditions. It needs to be a dry atmosphere and if possible, a nearly clear sky for viewing. Lets hope for good weather.