A Guide to Watching Tonight’s Solar Storm in NYC

Photo: Sebastian Saarloos/Courtesy of NASA

The sun is having a total tantrum right now, spitting out particles that are lighting up the Earth’s magnetic field in rather festive colors. Anybody who lives close to the North Pole in a country like Norway or Sweden can expect beautiful views tonight. But what about New Yorkers hoping to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon? We talked to NY Metro Weather’s John Homenuk about the best way to view tonight’s aurora. Step one: Get the hell out of NYC.

What is an aurora?
Most times the aurora borealis is caused when there is a “coronal mass ejection” (CME) from the sun. Basically the sun just erupts and all of this solar energy comes flying off, and a lot of times it just heads out harmlessly into space. Or sometimes, like today, it happens to come off an area of the sun that is pointed at Earth.

Now the sun is 93 million miles away, but obviously the ejections of the sun go far beyond the surface. So when you get this ejection, you get these charged solar particles that are flying toward Earth, and if Earth happens to be in the path of those particles, the Earth’s magnetic field and the atmosphere are going to react to them. When the charged particles hit the atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, it excites those atoms and causes them to light up. That’s what creates the color.

To create an analogy: What happens with the aurora is sort of what happens when you look at a neon light on a business sign. We use electricity to light neon gas atoms in those tubes, and the excitement of those atoms creates that color.

Do solar storms have any impact on Earth?
There can be some effects on satellites, radios, and things like that. You can get some interruptions on certain things: Anything that’s wireless can be interrupted by those particles.

You don’t mean “Wi-Fi” like, “Oh, my Time Warner internet is out because of the sun storm,” right?
No. In order for that to happen it would have to be very immense. Mostly you get some a.m. radio impacts, satellites can be affected if the storm is really strong.

How frequently do solar storms occur?
The sun fluctuates, and there are things called solar cycles. You’ll get periods of three-to-five years when the sun is quieter, and then you’ll go through an active period where there’s a CME every couple of days. We’re at the tail end of an active period right now, but the sun has been very active this winter, so it seems like every week or two there seems to be an ejection from the sun. We’ve been pretty fortunate that most of them have not been pointed at Earth, but this one is, and people are finding out about it, which is pretty cool.

What’s the best place to watch the aurora?
The closer you are to the poles the more visible the effects are.

What about in the NYC metro area?
The best plan is to wait two-to-three more hours to see if the storm has already peaked. In order to get the ability to see the aurora in the latitudes where we are, the storm needs to be very strong and the aurora needs to be moving south so we can see it. So we need to wait, because the storm just came on very strong in the middle of the day and these things don’t typically last 12 hours. That’s my first piece of advice.

The second thing I would say is if it lasts until tonight and it’s getting dark out, there should be good viewing conditions tonight because clouds are expected to move out. The very first thing I would do is get the heck out of New York. Get to the suburbs of New Jersey or southeast New York or Connecticut or whatever’s the easiest and try to turn your back to any town lights and look to the north. Make sure the bright lights are south of you and they’re not interfering with what you’re seeing.

Then you’ve got to give your eyes a lot of time to adapt, because believe it or not the aurora is not going to look like it does in these amazing photos that we see in Norway or Greenland. It’s not going to look like that. But if the storm is strong enough, you will be able to see it tonight — just get away from the city.

How long do you wait for your eyes to adjust?
About 20 minutes or so.

What will be the best viewing time?
As soon as it gets dark enough.

Any other advice?
One thing that I would say is if you go up there to the suburbs or a dark spot with the intention of seeing what you see in those photos, you will be very disappointed.

Okay, so what do you think the aurora will look like from the NYC area?
You’ll see the colors, but it’ll be more faint. And you’ll definitely see it move and change over time, but I don’t think it will be anything phenomenal. It’s very hard to get that here. But if all goes well, you will be able to see it and you will enjoy yourself as long as you’re not expecting this phenomenally unbelievable wall-of-colors type thing.

So have low expectations, basically.
Right. And if people don’t see it, we hope they won’t blame the weathermen.

After this winter, you’re used to that.
Yeah, but we can take it.