ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — High latitude sky watchers should be on the alert for auroras Wednesday night into Thursday, and it’s certainly possible auroras could dance as far south as WNY.
A G3-class Geomagnetic Storm Watch is in effect for the early hours of March 31st (Wednesday night-Thursday morning) as a series of “sun burps” head toward earth. Our sun occasionally releases solar flares, or chunks of energy that fly out into space. Sometimes this energy doesn’t run into anything important. Sometimes it runs into earth.
This could be one of those times. When these flares reach earth’s magnetic field, vivid auroras can dance across the poles. These geomagnetic storms, as we call them, are rated on a scale from 1-5 based on potency and subsequent impacts to earth. The bigger the number, the more intense the storm. In terms of auroras, the bigger the storm, the farther south auroras will be able to be seen.
Now that we’ve gotten the technicals out of the way, let’s get into the meat and potatoes as it relates to us. Auroras visible in WNY are not everyday occurrences, but they do happen.
Our ability to see them locally hinges on two factors. 1) A geomagnetic storm of sufficient intensity (I generally like to see at least a G3 rating) and 2) A sky overhead that isn’t full of clouds.
On paper, we’ll satisfy the first element. The current G3 forecast can drive auroras as far south as the NY/PA line.
As a fellow lover of all things space, this isn’t my first rodeo. Predicting the weather is hard. Predicting the timing and intensity of these sun burps is harder. I don’t envy the brilliant minds tasked with predicting this stuff.
That said, the complexity results in an inherent element of the unknown. I’ve seen many G3+ predictions fail to live up to the hype. Conversely, I’ve seen a few surprise storms that came out of nowhere. My point is, predictions are just that…predictions. There is no telling exactly when and how strong/southward these auroras will get. When/if the impact happens, we’ll know pretty quick what we’re working with. But if that G3 prediction is spot on, history tells us auroras can dance across WNY.
So let’s say it happens. Auroras tend to favor local midnight into the wee hours of the morning. While theoretically visible at our latitude, they will almost certainly not appear directly overhead. Rather, you’ll have to have a clean view looking northward to see them. When assessing the cloud cover situation, it is important to focus less on what is directly overhead, but what the sky will look like toward the northern horizon.
The current forecast isn’t good. A warm front will be working through the region Wednesday night, likely carrying a significant overcast with it. Skies to our north look equally problematic. I’m not telling you there won’t be a break or two embedded in there. But I am telling you that you’re going to need some combination of patience and luck to pull it off. We’ll keep watching high resolution model guidance leading up to Wednesday night with our fingers and toes crossed. All we’d need is a quick break in the clouds. Who knows, perhaps luck will be on our side with this one.
So to recap:
WHAT: Northern lights *possibly* visible across northern latitudes, including WNY.
WHEN: Wednesday night-Thursday morning, favoring midnight into wee hours of the morning.
HOW TO SEE IT: You’ll want an unimpeded view to the north where trees/building won’t be in your way.
FORECAST: Not great. Clouds will be abundant, but we can’t rule out a break or two.