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Northern Lights may be visible in Colorado tonight

Aurora borealis is seen in Canada. (Credit: Douglas Duncan, University of Colorado Boulder)

Aurora borealis is seen in Canada. (Credit: Douglas Duncan, University of Colorado Boulder)

DENVER — A rare solar storm may make the Northern Lights visible as far south as Colorado and New Mexico this week, the University of Colorado Boulder said.

Daniel Baker, director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said a coronal mass ejection tied to a large solar flare began to impact Earth early Thursday morning, hitting the planet’s outer magnetic shield and causing spectacular light displays about midnight tonight and possibly into Friday.

“The aurora borealis, or ‘false dawn of the north,’ are brilliant dancing lights in the night sky caused by intense interactions of energetic electrons with the thin gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere,” Baker said. “The aurora are most commonly seen in Alaska, northern Canada and Scandinavia when the sun sends out powerful bursts of energy.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts have estimated there is a 90 percent chance the coronal mass ejection will hit Earth today. Generally only visible in Alaska, Canada and other northern climes, the aurora may now briefly make it down into the contiguous U.S.

“One can think of aurora in some ways as if the Earth’s atmosphere is a giant TV screen and the magnetosphere generates intense beams of electrons that blast down along magnetic field lines to produce the red and green light picture show,” Baker said. “If the sun produces extremely powerful energy outbursts, the aurora can move to much lower latitudes than normal and then one can see the fantastic light displays in the lower 48 states, even as low in latitude as Colorado and New Mexico.”

Those interested in seeing the Northern Lights should visit http://www.aurorasaurus.org, a site led by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The site is designed as a real-time map of confirmed aurora sightings and includes a place for citizen-scientists who want to participate to report aurora sightings in their own neighborhoods.

For additional information visit NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center at http://www.swpc.noaa.gov. For more information on LASP visit http://lasp.colorado.edu/home/.

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