National Weather Service says Thursday was best Northern lights show in 20 years

The Aurora was visible not only across the U.P., but even in parts of Iowa and Missouri.
Published: Mar. 24, 2023 at 7:04 PM EDT
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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - The National Weather Service (NWS) is calling last night’s Northern Lights display the best light show in 20 years.

The Aurora was visible not only across the U.P. but even in parts of Iowa and Missouri. National Weather Service Meteorologist Matt Zika said there’s a reason why this display was so vibrant.

First and foremost, Zika said the right combination of conditions is crucial for the lights to be visible.

“To both get the solar activity to occur the geomagnetic storming and for clear skies to occur here in the U.P.,” said Zika.

With stars out and no clouds in sight, visibility was already high last night. But what causes those dancing colors?

“Those geomagnetic storms occur when there are large disruptions in the magnetic field across the globe,” said Zika. “Usually caused by big plasma injections that come from the sun focus towards the earth.”

Lead Forecaster Greg Michels said the northern lights operate similarly to how neon lights operate.

“The sun’s energy excites the molecules that are up in the upper atmosphere and when those molecules get excited,” said Michels. “Specifically, if it’s oxygen you get the red colors and if it’s nitrogen you get kind of the blue and green colors.”

Zika concluded that this storm was especially vivid because of where we are in the solar cycle. He also said cycles happen on a 10 to 11-year cycle. The last one ended around 2020 and a new one started in 2021. Now, we’re headed toward the peak of the next solar cycle, which will happen in 2024.

“Now because of that, we should see a lot more solar activity occurring and more opportunities to see the northern lights over the next couple of years.”

The NWS said if you didn’t get to experience last night’s show, there will be plenty more opportunities in the future.