Once again, the Northern Lights are (hopefully!) performing in the United States this weekend.
Though the odds of seeing the natural wonder in New York are slim, we turned to astrophysicist Jackie Faherty of the American Museum of Natural History for some tips that could maximize city dwellers’ chances of witnessing the splendor , which is the Northern Lights in the next few days.
“Everyone’s expectations should be low because it’s a very difficult phenomenon to observe, even if you’re in Norway or Sweden,” warns the expert. “Clouds will just destroy it for you.”
That being said, it might be a good idea to travel a bit outside of the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. But let’s start from the beginning:
What are the Northern Lights?
“Our sun is a large ball of gas with an atomic engine at its center, which has a lot of dynamics,” explains Faherty. “Occasionally the sun basically ejects a lot of electromagnetic radiation and particles in one direction. It emits a solar flare, and when that happens on the sun’s side facing us, a lot of charged particles come down to us on Earth, which fortunately has a protective atmospheric and magnetic field.”
Once the particles hit the field, they disintegrate somewhat and collide with atoms already in our atmosphere. The result? A cascade of light as these charged particles decay.
Fun Fact: The colors of the Aurora Borealis actually indicate what type of atoms these charged particles have encountered. For example, green, the most common hue, is associated with oxygen.
When do the Northern Lights happen?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) issued a forecast predicting the event will occur tonight and tomorrow. In terms of time, you want to look up during the darkest hour of the day, which clearly depends on a lot of factors.
What is the best area in Manhattan to see the spectacle?
Though Faherty is quick to point out that we probably won’t be able to see the Northern Lights from Manhattan, she notes that Central Park may be the best place to catch them.
“If you go to the middle of the Great Lawn where trees block the light from the buildings, that might be a good spot,” she says. “Two things are very important: being able to see a large part of the sky and that the sky is very dark.”
One area to definitely stay away from is Times Square (for some, this is true at all times of the day).
Would leaving Manhattan to witness the event help us?
Probably. Given that access to the open skies is paramount when attempting to see the Northern Lights, getting out of town for the suburbs might be a good idea, says Faherty. Delaware, Greene, and Columbia counties are good destinations to keep an eye on.
Are there other ways to see the Northern Lights?
Unfortunately, the only way to see the Northern Lights live is to see the Northern Lights live.
For a more adjoining experience, though, consider attending the American Museum of Natural History’s Big Quiet event on October 22, a meditation project at the planetarium that’s complemented with amazing imagery – some might even feature the Northern Lights, like it seen from there is outer space.