Idaho residents could be in store for a celestial treat on Thursday night — as long as the skies remain clear.
The aurora borealis — better known as the northern lights — will be visible across much of the United States’ northern reaches on Thursday night as a “Cannibal” solar storm barrels through space toward Earth.
That includes Idaho, but cloudy skies may ruin the spectacle.
Will the weather in Idaho cooperate?
Boise is just within the forecast zone to see the aurora with the naked eye, according to the social media account Space Weather Watch. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also has Boise on the viewing area’s cusp.
But most of the Gem State and many other northern states will be under a thick layer of clouds on Thursday night. Snow is in the forecast for Boise, with snow beginning on Thursday evening and lasting through Friday, with snow totals expected to be around 1-2 inches.
What exactly are the northern lights?
When pretty colored lights randomly appear in the sky, there’s usually some weird science going on.
But in its simplest form, the northern lights occur because the magnetically charged protons and electrons encounter Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the planet from cosmic radiation and particles emitted from the sun. The protons and electrons follow the magnetic field, which convenes at the north and south poles.
That’s when the magic happens.
“When (protons and electrons) slam into the atmosphere, they excite the atoms there, and oxygen happens to glow green,” Jason Barnes, a professor in the University of Idaho Department of Physics, previously told the Idaho Statesman. “And so a lot of what you’re seeing is oxygen glowing in the upper atmosphere.”
Barnes also explained that oxygen isn’t the only molecule with atoms getting excited by the solar flares, but that it’s the most dominant molecule in the atmosphere and the one we can see easiest with our eyes.
How to view the aurora borealis in Idaho
If the clouds break on Thursday night and offer a glimpse of the sky, aurora chases will want to look toward the north.
Barnes also recommends somewhere away from light pollution. He also said the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve would be a good location — the reserve is just 10 minutes northeast of Pettit Lake’s eastern shore and boasts one of the darkest skies in the United States.
Viewing options closer to Boise include the top of the hill at Camel’s Back Park in the North End, and Dedication Point, a pull-off area near Celebration Park south of Boise with zero light pollution.
Once you’re in a dark location, the next challenge is identifying the lights.
“It kind of looks like a thin cloud. But it kind of changes really fast. So it changes on maybe 20 or 30-second timescales,” Barnes said. “And that’s really the big indication that you’re looking at an aurora and not just a random cloud.”
Auroras can be viewed with the naked eye. Barnes recommended against using any sort of telescope or binoculars because an aurora is a wide-scale event, and a magnification device may limit your view.