The typically elusive northern lights have made themselves visible with multiple vibrant displays in Michigan within the past couple of months, creating a lot of new public interest in this special show.
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are caused by the collision of particles from the sun with gasses in Earth’s atmosphere, according to NASA. Spectacular northern lights are most commonly associated with places like Iceland, Alaska, and Scandinavia, but strong solar storms can make the lights visible in northern states like Michigan on some occasions.
Some of those occasions, like on Thursday, March 23, produced spectacular displays of dancing green and red visible to the naked eye all the way into southern Michigan.
Other displays, like on Feb. 26, were visible to the naked eye but not to such a significant extent. Having two impressive aurora events so close together in Michigan was a rare treat!
“It’s not this common for them to be so visible so quickly in between,” Daniel Jablonski, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Marquette, says. While both of those two notable displays were visible to the naked eye, often the lights are only visible on long exposure photos, which bring out more light than our eyes can.
Naked eye or otherwise, there is a dedicated group of northern lights enthusiasts in Michigan that track down the aurora at every chance. Melissa F. Kaelin, author of the Michigan northern lights guidebook “Below the 45th Parallel,” formed the Facebook group Michigan Aurora Chasers in January 2021.
In the two-plus years since then, the group has grown to roughly 69,000 members as of writing. Many of them are seasoned aurora chasers, with 26 “group experts” and five group administrators in addition to Kaelin: Nate Stovall, Patrick Grubba, Gerry Beth Buckel, Marybeth Kiczenski, and Tim Wenzel.
Recent northern lights shows have caused even more interest in the chase. Since Feb. 26, the group has grown by over 5,000 members. “When I started this group, I wanted it to be accessible and educational,” Kaelin says. “I think back to when I started aurora chasing, I had no idea what to look for. I had no idea what it would take to see the northern lights and how long it would take me to have my first success when you’re trying to track them on purpose.”
From strong solar activity to clear, cloudless skies, conditions have to be just right for the northern lights to appear to the naked eye. This is especially true for those further south, so new viewers shouldn’t expect bright displays of green and red to the naked eye to be a monthly phenomenon in the Great Lakes State.
What should newcomers be watching to know if northern lights are going to be visible each night? If users want to track the solar wind speeds and K-index, a measure of geomagnetic conditions, for themselves, Kaelin suggests visiting spaceweatherlive.com.
That data requires some interpretation, so it may be easier to join an aurora chasing group or follow an aurora alerts account on social media for guidance and check the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center OVATION model, which shows the northern lights’ reach.
Northern lights forecasts are only going to come into focus a couple of days in advance, and up until the lights start to shine, they can change at any moment. This makes it impossible for visitors to plan trips north to see the lights except on a moment’s notice.
Still, those looking to the sky might have an increase in viewing opportunities over the next couple of years.
The solar cycle, an 11-year cycle of solar activity, hit its solar minimum in 2019 and is expected to peak in July 2025, according to the National Weather Service. This doesn’t mean that the next two years will be full of everyday lights displays, but it does provide hope for more skies of green and red as we go forward.
“We do have more chances over the next period of time to see events,” Jablonski says. “And if the last two events are any indication, hopefully we’ll have some pretty good viewings before we start cycling down.”