How to watch the possible aurora borealis this weekend

Those of you looking to the skies this weekend may bear witness to a cosmic visual experience typically reserved for regions near the Arctic Circle. Various global weather agencies are reporting that the aurora borealis could be visible as far south as Alabama and Northern California over the coming days thanks to unusually strong solar flares.

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a G4 geomagnetic storm watch — the first to be declared in almost 20 years. G4 geomagnetic storms (which are the second-strongest variety and considered “severe”) can potentially interfere with power infrastructure and navigation systems, but they can also trigger the aurora borealis. That means parts of the world could enjoy a rare and captivating light show if the clouds behave.

Predicting if, where, and when the aurora borealis will appear is incredibly difficult, but because the G4 watch is in place between May 10th and 12th, this particular event has a wide window of opportunity. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center estimates that Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota are the US states with the best chance of seeing them, especially on Friday. The UK’s Meteorological Office also says the aurora may unfurl across the northern half of the UK, with a chance of it being visible across the entire country.

And while some people may want to experience this event “in the moment,” recording it via a smartphone camera will likely provide a better view. That’s because cameras are more sensitive to light than human eyes, and modes optimized for low-light conditions can produce images and video that look especially vivid.

Aurora can only be seen at night, toward the northern horizon. While it can be visible any time between sundown and sunrise, peak viewing times generally occur between 10PM and 2AM when the sky is at its darkest. The NOAA says it can be observed from as much as 1,000 kilometers (around 621 miles) away if conditions are right, and avoiding areas with heavy light pollution can improve your chances.

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