Can you see the northern lights from the Lower 48? The short answer is yes, the longer and more useful answer is a little more complicated. There is no chance of seeing them from any of the southern states, and Texas is completely out of luck.
If one would like to see more brilliant displays of the wonders of nature, consider going to Yukon in Canada and combining one's aurora adventure with dog sledding in the Arctic. Of course, the best place in the United States to see the Northern Lights is in Alaska - but not all of Alaska, some places are better than others.
When To See The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis actually occur year-round, it's just that they are more visible when it's darker. Being the most visible in the far north, but the summer days are long and bright and there is a twilight glow in the height of summer, or the sun doesn't set at all. That means that they are much more difficult to see in the summer.
In the Lower 48, there is darkness year-round (like polar regions). This means they are theoretically visible year-round - even in the summer. But in general, they are potentially visible on dark, cloudless skies from late August to mid-April.
Aurora activity is the greatest around the equinoxes due to the axial tilt of the earth. The angle of the magnetic fields relative to the magnetic field of the solar wind changes. The spring equinox in March and the autumn equinox in September are particularly good times to see them.
- Equinoxes: The Times Of Greatest Aurora Activity
When it comes to times, the strongest lights tend to appear between 9.00 pm and 2.00 am with the best sightings often being from 11.00 pm to midnight.
- Strongest Lights: Tend To be Between 9.00 pm and 2.00 am
Where The Northern Lights Are the Best
The northern lights most commonly occur within the geographic area beneath what is known as the auroral oval. This is between the latitudes of 60 and 75 degrees north. The lands within that zone include Iceland, parts of Russia, Canada, Alaska, Finland, Norway, southern Greenland, and Sweden. Unfortunately, this Goldilocks zone does not include the Lower 48.
- Auroral Oval: Between The Latitudes of 60 and 75
While most of the action occurs within that oval, it can appear at lower latitudes. The activity is also not consistent and the auroral oval is constantly shifting.
If and when the conditions are right one can catch the auroras in most of the northern border states - like Maine or Montana. As recently as October 2021 these kaleidoscopic swirls danced their magic in the skies from New Hampshire to Glacier National Park. The previous month to that they were seen in North Dakota.
A New Solar Cycle
There is likely to be more too. Since December 2019 the sun has entered a new cycle of solar activity - and this cycle means an increase in solar activity and hopefully more lights in the skies.
- Solar Cycle: The Sun Has Entered A New Phase of Solar Activity and The Lights Should Be More Visible in The Next Few Years
- Duration: The Solar Cycles Are around 11 Years Long
Each of these solar cycles is around 11 years long and the midpoint is around five years into the circle - called the solar maximum. That means the next few years are likely to get even better.
Keep An Eye On Forecasts
If one is hoping to see the Aurora Borealis, then look at the forecasts for the lights in the States. When the conditions are predicted to be right, look for a place with dark clear skies with minimal obstructions to the north. All of the Contiguous states are quite far south so one will need to gaze up north.
Tip: Look For A Place With Minimal Obstructions To The North
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For a map of how far south one can see the lights, refer to NOAA’s Kp map. It shows that Michigan's Upper Peninsula and northern Montana are better for seeing them and requires a Kp score of only Kp4. The higher the Kp score is an indicator of disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field (needed to generate the lights). The lines on the map so how high the Kp score needs to be to see them.
Don't Get Too Excited!
Don't just go to the far north of Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula and expect to see the spectacle as one is likely to be disappointed. One needs to get all the conditions right to see them in the main part of the US.
And if they are visible they may only be a glow on the horizon and not the dancing magic seen in northern latitudes. Additionally, some of the pictures one may see on the internet of the northern lights from the Lower 48 may have been captured with cameras that reveal them much better than the naked eye.