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The northern lights might not show up in NH after all. But here's how to get a good look at the sky anyway.

Aurora borealis in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park in May 2017.
NPS / Neal Herbert
/
Yellowstone National Park
Aurora borealis in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park in May 2017.

It’s rare for the northern lights to be visible as far down south as New Hampshire, so when a forecast from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks said they might be visible in the Granite State on Thursday, it got a lot of attention.

But now, the chances of spotting the celestial phenomenon are looking more hazy. The forecasters say “the high levels of activity previously expected are now considered much less likely” — in other words, the lights likely won’t be visible in New Hampshire after all.

Click here for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's aurora dashboard.

James LaBelle, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth, said predicting when aurora activity will occur is a lot harder than predicting the weather.

The source of the initial report on the possibility of a northern lights sighting in New Hampshire was just one of several forecasting sites, he said, and their original forecast predicted about three to six hours of activity — a fairly short window.

“Somebody in the media noticed this and publicized it pretty widely,” he said. “However other forecasting sites are not predicting especially strong aurora on Thursday.”

LaBelle said there’s multiple strategies in forecasting auroras. One involves observing the sun’s 27-day rotation and sunspots that face toward the Earth. Sunspots affect aurora activity, he said, and high activity can cause the aurora to appear bright and more visible — or it could expand its range.

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“This is a basis for suspecting strong auroral disturbances on July 13,” he said. “If you look back 27 days earlier, there were strong auroral disturbances, and in fact 27 days before that there were also strong auroral disturbances.”

Another forecasting method is to observe what the sun is doing right now.

“At the moment the sun is active but not extremely so,” Labelle said. “This is a basis for thinking that the aurora may be active on Thursday, but not so disturbed as to be observed in New Hampshire.”

Kristina Lynch, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth, said it’s not unusual for sun cycle prediction cycles to miss the mark.

“What I have found is that these 28-day cycle predictions can be wrong by a day or two in either direction,” Lynch said. “Maybe it comes early, maybe it comes late. Maybe it doesn’t come at all because the sunspot died.”


But what if they do show up? How can Granite Staters look for them?

If the northern lights do appear, Lynch said they might emerge as green waves, or even red or purple ones, as seen in some photography. Though, to the human eye, it might look like a white light — depending on the aurora activity, it could look like the Milky Way or could dance around in the sky.

Lynch said the northern lights sometimes remind her of peering up from a stairway banister: “I always think of it as stair rails, banister railings that move around — vertical lines in a sheet like a picket fence that dance around.”

If you’re really hoping to catch a glimpse, Lynch recommends traveling as far north as possible, closer to the Canadian border, where aurora activity is more likely to show up.

Aurora activity is usually focused in the upper northern hemisphere, she said. Think of it like a small crown that sits on top of the Earth. High sunspot activity broadens the crown so that it can travel as far south as New Hampshire.

It also helps to get high off the ground, if possible.

“What you need locally is a place where you can see to the north without having your view blocked by the trees,” Lynch said.

That’s right, trees could also get in the way. New Hampshire’s lush forests could block the horizon and parts of the sky, Lynch said. When aurora activity typically reaches New Hampshire, around the Canadian border, it’s low on the horizon. People may need to look up at a 45-degree angle to catch them, but Lynch said preferably on a hill.

There’s not really designated spots for people to see the northern lights in New Hampshire. When they have been spotted in New Hampshire in the past, Lynch said it’s usually been around Mount Washington in New Hampshire or Lake Champlain in Vermont.

On the rare chance that aurora activity is high, LaBelle said it could come down further south in the state — in which case people could look up.

“Now if it's a spectacular event, it'll be overhead and could even be southward,” LaBelle said. “But for the most part, Aurora in New Hampshire is going to be to the north.”

He also recommends people get away from city lights. It’s best to be in a really dark place, as auroral activity as far south as New Hampshire isn’t going to be all that bright. Onlookers should find a place where they could see the Milky Way on a typical clear night.

“The other thing is, it can certainly happen anytime after darkness, but is more likely to be spectacular as midnight approaches,” LaBelle said.

One other thing to keep in mind: Thunderstorms and rain are on the radar for Thursday night, which could cloud visibility.

However, there’s still some hope. LaBelle said not to worry if they can’t be seen this time.

“The next couple of years are particularly promising for viewing aurora, because the sun will be in the most active part of its 11-year sunspot cycle,” LaBelle said.

Predictions aside, LaBelle said the only thing one can do is look and see what pans out.

Olivia joins us from WLVR/Lehigh Valley Public Media, where she covered the Easton area in eastern Pennsylvania. She has also reported for WUWM in Milwaukee and WBEZ in Chicago.
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