News media are reporting that this year will likely be a good year to see the Northern Lights in Maine.
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis as they’re called in the Northern Hemisphere, are caused by activity on the sun that sends electrically charged particles towards the earth. These particles are attracted to the earth’s magnetic north. As they hit the earth’s atmosphere at a whopping 42 million miles per hour, the particles heat up, emitting the colors that make the natural light show.
Sun activity goes through cycles. Every 11 years-or-so, we get peak activity.
The last peak was 2014. So, now we are working our way to the next peak in 2025. That’s why the skies are beginning to light up more and will continue to become more intense over the next few years.
So, now is the time to think about seeing the show.
Finding the Northern Lights in Maine
Whenever we would visit my grandparents in Maine, we could always count on seeing the Northern Lights. That’s because clear dark nights are best to see the lights. And since they lived in a rural part of northwest York County, they always had ideal conditions.
Early autumn in Maine tends to have clear nights and increasing darkness. These are perfect viewing conditions. However, whether we visited in summer during school vacation or in the winter for Christmas, I knew we would see the Northern Lights at least once.
In general, the farther north you travel in Maine, the better the view. This is because the farther north you go, the closer you are to the North Pole. Also, there is typically less atmospheric and light pollution from towns and cities, which allows for clearer, darker skies.
However, when the conditions are right, you can see the lights from the rural dark areas or from the ocean in southern Maine. What is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Maine? You can see them anytime after dark, but they will be most intense between 10 pm and 2 am.
Increasing Your Chances of Seeing the Northern Lights
While you may want to travel north to see the lights, you don’t have to. The lights can be seen as low as 39 degrees latitude, which is Maryland. Portland, on the other hand, is about 44 degrees.
So, it is completely reasonable for you to go outside to see them. The key is finding a dark place on a clear night when Mother Nature is feeling generous.
Website to track the Northern Lights in Maine
If you don’t want leave things to chance and would like to know if you can see the Northern Lights in Maine tonight, go to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center. This site monitors the sun’s activity and predicts activity in your area.
You can click on “About Space Weather” to learn more of the science behind the predictions. Otherwise, just look for the green and red halo in your area.
The time listed on the NOAA site is UTC (Consolidated Universal Time). To get the standard time in Maine (EST), simply subtract five hours from the listed UTC. Remember, it is a 24-hour clock. There is a converter here if you’re not up for the arithmetic.
Deciphering NOAA info
There’s also an app to keep you up to date. The app lists Kp indices. Kp is NOAA’s measure of solar activity. These figures may seem complicated, but they are actually pretty simple to interpret.
From the NOAA website:
- For Kp in the range 0 to 2, the aurora will be far north, quite dim in intensity, and not very active.
- For Kp in the range of 3 to 5, the aurora will move further from the poles, it will become brighter and there will be more auroral activity (motion and formations). If you are in the right place, these aurora can be quite pleasing to look at.
- For Kp in the range 6 to 7, the aurora will move even further from the poles and will become quite bright and active. At this geomagnetic activity level, it might be possible to see the aurora from the northern edge of the United States.
- For Kp in the range 8 to 9, the aurora will move even further towards the equator and it will become very bright and very active. These are the events that create the best aurora and the extended auroral oval will be observable by the most people. At these levels, aurora may be seen directly overhead from the northern states of the USA.
How to look in the Maine sky
In Maine, start looking at the night sky when the numbers on the app reach at least a level of six. If you want to skip the app, you can go directly to the published NOAA Chart that provides the data for the app. The chart gives you a three-day lead time, if you are thinking about traveling. There’s also a Facebook page dedicated to the northern lights in Maine.
So, while ultimately Mother Nature will decide if the Northern Lights will give us their show, if you choose a clear night with high activity levels on the NOAA charts, you may get some insight into her plans.
While we’re talking about the night sky, don’t forget about the solar eclipse coming to Maine next year.
Finally, if you’re wondering what the Northern Lights are called in the Southern Hemisphere, the answer is Aurora Australis