BILLINGS — The Aurora Borealis is a familiar sight in places like Alaska and Canada, but in Montana, it's a fairly rare occurrence to witness.
This week, Montana residents are in luck, however. For a three-day stretch, there's a great opportunity to witness a night show put on by Mother Nature due to the perfect geometric storm.
"What causes the Aurora is charge particles coming off of the sun and quite a large amount of them. When they interact with the atmosphere, they can also induce some electrical charges and it can create a nice light show," said Nickolai Reimer, a Billings-based forecaster with NOAA.
Typically the lights are reversed to the northern and southern poles from the magnetic pull of the Earth. The bigger the geomagnetic storm though, the bigger the show.
"When the solar winds come through, which is just charge particles, coming off the sun. They interact with that magnetic field that the earth just naturally has, and it deflects it up to the poles. So, normally that’s why people associate Northern Lights with Canada, Alaska and maybe even Scandinavia and Russia as well. It's just because the magnetic pull deflects it up there and the same thing applies on the other side of the globe on the southern hemisphere where it gets deflected up to Antarctica. And when we have a larger sunspot event like we’re having now, that mass of particles is enough to deflect a little bit further south. That’s how places like Montana or Wyoming or even places like Chicago and even New York may be able to see some of these northern lights as well," added Reimer.
Montana was a host for the uncommon event in April of this year as well. Seeing it once in a year is a surprise, and twice is almost unheard of.
"There is a natural cycle to sunspot activity on about an 11-year cycle. So, some years there will be more, some years there will be less. But it's just a natural part of the way the sun operates with that huge fusion engine inside of it," said Reimer.
Reimer said that we're currently in the uptick of that cycle and that's why another big storm is projected again. The amazing displays of colors are the biggest draw, and Reimer explained the reasoning behind the varied palette seen in the sky.
"It’s essentially the same thing as neon light where you put some electricity through gas, and it will glow as it gets excited. Those charge particles interact with gasses in the atmosphere to do the exact same thing. So, they get a little bit of an electric charge and start glowing like a neon lamp would and that's why you see different colors because different gasses will glow in different colors," Reimer added.
Reimer said the best way to catch the lights is to head north out of town and away from the light pollution of the city. He mentioned that around midnight the storm would be at its strongest and most visible.