Northern lights in Utah: ‘Look for the sky to turn red’

Posted at 6:02 PM, Sep 12, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-12 20:05:25-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A phenomenon rarely seen in northern Utah could be visible this weekend.

Aurora borealis, aka the northern lights, are more common at much higher latitudes, but highly charged protons from a solar storm currently bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere make it possible to see a glowing sky in parts of northern Utah.

“People in the way northern latitudes – Alaska and Norway – they’re used to this stuff. But when the sun’s really active and really dumps a lot of high energy protons into the atmosphere, that northern lights aurora phenomena drifts south in latitude and here, at 40ish degrees, you can sometimes get the northern lights,” said Seth Jarvis, Director of Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City.

Jarvis said the best chance to see the northern lights will occur after sunset and before the moon gets too bright, which happens sometime around 10 p.m.

People hoping to view the northern lights will need to get away from city lights.

“If you’re way up high in the mountains, you’re some place up in the wilderness, look for the sky to turn red. Those are solar protons exciting the upper atmosphere,” Jarvis said. “When you see the northern lights, you are seeing exactly the same phenomena that occur inside a neon light bulb or inside a fluorescent light tube.  It is an excitation of a rarefied gas and as the gas is excited and then relaxes back to its normal state, it gives off [this] light and that’s called fluorescence.”

If you don’t get to see it Friday night, Saturday night could be another opportunity.

“Tomorrow, Saturday, could be another good one. The moon will rise about 50 minutes later and we could still be in the middle of this solar storm,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis recommends looking for the northern lights with the naked eye.  Binoculars and telescopes, he says, will provide too narrow of a field of view.

Cool temperatures are expected in the mountains, so bundle up if you plan to look for this rare sight.