Northern Lights Setting Skies Alight: Viewer's Guide to 2014's First Big Aurora Borealis Display

Solar flare may spark bright auroras to delight sky-watchers.

The sun emitted a significant solar flare on January 7, 2014, which may result in northern lights on January 9 and 10.

The celebrated northern lights illuminate skies with unearthly glows that have long thrilled sky-watchers. A solar flare promises more displays of the aurora borealis in coming days.

Thanks to advance warnings from space weather satellites, people living in northern latitudes can know when to look for these night lights. (See also: "Watch: Sun Unleashes First Big Flare of 2014, May Create Colorful Aurora Light Show.")

On January 7, astronomers saw the sun unleash a strong solar flare that will strike a direct blow to Earth's magnetic field. Zipping along at up to 1.6 million miles per hour (2.5 million kilometers per hour), the blast should arrive sometime on January 9 or 10.

Solar Eruptions

Called a coronal mass ejection (CME), these massive outbursts of charged solar particles are funneled by Earth's magnetic field to the poles. Space weather forecasters currently estimate that there's a 90 percent chance of geomagnetic storms resulting from the CME's excitation of the upper atmosphere there.

And scientists say that the sunspot group responsible for the January blast remains very active and is still facing Earth, so there is a 50 percent chance for another powerful solar blast that may hit us to occur in the next day or so.

On rare occasions, such geomagnetic storms can damage electrical grids and temporarily knock out radio and satellite telecommunications. Any communications loss could also cause the rerouting of long-duration plane flights over the Arctic. Staff at the U.S.-based Space Weather Prediction Center say that they are closely monitoring the situation and updating forecasts as needed.

Here is our quick guide to catching the northern lights show:

Who will get to see the sky show?

Depending on the orientation of the solar outburst's magnetic field at the time of impact, we may have a better-than-average chance of seeing a light show in the skies above, especially if you live in New England, the Upper Midwest, or the Pacific Northwest.

According to current reports on, scientists are forecasting at least an 85 percent chance of auroras occurring in higher latitude skies and around a 50 percent chance for the mid-latitudes in the 48-hour period of January 9 through 10.

So if you have clear skies and you live north of 40 degrees latitude—that's anywhere north of the line stretching from Philadelphia to Denver, roughly speaking—it's worth a peek outside the next few nights.

Sky-watchers around the Arctic Circle and southern tip of South America will most likely see something, and those in more mid-latitude locations—like Toronto, New York, Seattle, and London—may have a fair chance as well.

Since the strength of the aurora depends on the orientation of the CME's magnetic field when it arrives, which is hard to predict, northern lights predictions always come hedged with a little caution.

While the best locations to catch auroras are dark locations away from city lights, intense displays can on rare occasions become bright enough to be easily seen from suburban backyards and even from a window of a darkened bedroom. Just remember, as for any stargazing, to turn off all your lights and give your eyes at least 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness.

When is the best time to look up?

The best time to look north is on January 9 and 10, starting at mid-evening and continuing late into the night. Generally, auroras start to kick in around local midnight, but since this is an intense event, the first hints of auroras may begin soon after local nightfall.

Watch for hints of a greenish glow to creep up the sky from the horizon—that's how many aurora events begin. If it ends up being an intense display, then a larger portion of the sky will unveil orange, pink, and purple curtains waving overhead.

How do I take a photo of the auroras?

You may want to try your hand at snapping your own souvenirs of these ghostly glows. It's not rocket science, but you have to have the right kind of equipment, an eye for framing your shots, and some patience. Some of the most beautiful photos of auroras are set where foreground objects such as houses, trees, and mountains are in view.

You should have a digital DSLR camera with a wide-angle lens, 55mm or less, to capture as much of the sky and landscape as possible. Mounting your camera on a sturdy tripod is a must so that you have a stable platform that doesn't shake if a sudden gust of wind blows as you take long-exposure photos.

Your camera should have a manual (M) setting where you can set the exposure rates at up to 20 to 30 seconds. Boost the sensitivity of your camera sensor to 400 ISO or higher. Both long exposures and higher ISOs will allow you to pick up hidden details and colors of auroras that you can't see with the naked eye. A self-timer release is indispensable as well, allowing you to remotely trigger shots without imparting any shaking to the camera.

Remember to be patient because auroras can take anywhere from minutes to hours to unfold—and you never know when you may see that awesome colorful curtain of light appear.

Finally, don't be afraid to experiment with camera settings—and expect to take scores of snapshots before you catch that one keeper.

While there are no guarantees that there will be auroras, the only way to know for sure is to go outside and look for yourself.

Captured a great photo of the northern lights? We invite you to send it in to our Your Shot community.

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