Where can I see the Northern Lights in the continental US?

Is there any place I can see the arora borealis in the continental US? Every fall I take some time to drive and see the leaves and I was thinking this year I would go somewhere where I could also see the arora borealis. Is that possible?

When you wrote the question, I don’t suppose you remembered that Alaska is part of the continental US. As for the contiguous 48 states, you can pick any of the top row on the map, and it’s not unusual to see the aurora borealis there. Not every night, but several times a year.

If you want a guaranteed show you need to get further north than the 49th, though. It’s pretty common to see the Northern Lights hereabouts (400km north of the border), but it’s certainly not every night, or even most nights. Besides, the further north you go, the better the display.

They’ve been some spectacular displays in the last few years. Back when we were at solar maximum, that time in the solar cycle when there are lots of sunspots and coronal mass ejections, bright aurora could be seen from Iowa, North Carolina, with lesser displays as far south as Florida and southern California.
Unfortunately for aurora watchers, we’re now at solar minimum, so the next 4 or 5 years are likely to be slim pickings for sunspots, coronal mass ejections, and auroras.
Still big sunspots and aurora do sometimes occur at solar minimum, so looking for them is not a hopeless quest.
If you regulary check the NOAA POES Auroral Activity page, Spaceweather.com , or sign up with Aurora Alerts, you have a good chance of seeing decent auroral activity from dark skys in your area with a few months effort.

In an extreme example of what Squink mentioned, McDonald Observatory in Davis, TX, has pictures of an aurora that was visible from there. Granted they weren’t the cool sheets of glimmer, just a red glow.

From their FAQ,

They’re pretty common here, to the point that when Mr. Athena pulls his telescope out at night he curses the northern lights because they screw up the viewing.

I grew up in Fargo, and if you went far enough outside of the city during November, you could see them very clearly. You could see the sheets, but they were always the same color as the starlight; no different colors or anything like that.

The absolute most important thing is to get far, far away from city lights. Find a place with no settlement over a thousand anywhere within 100 miles, and none to the north for about 200, which gets clear skies, and you’ve got a half-decent bet. This isn’t strictly necessary (I’ve seen them a few times here in Bozeman, surrounded by thirty thousand souls, and once on the outskirts of Montreal), but it helps trememdously.

The next most important thing is timing. Sites like Space Weather can tell you when there’s a coronal mass ejection headed towards us; that usually gives an aurora two or three days later. I believe they have a mailing list you can sign up for, so they’ll e-mail you a warning when conditions look good. As mentioned, good aurorae are rare around this time of the cycle, but they can still occur, and can be quite spectacular. You’ll probably have better luck in 4-6 years.

And the most important thing of all, more important than the other two, is luck. Even with all the forecasting, you can’t count on having an aurora at all, you can’t count on it being visible from a particular latitude (it’s actually possible to be too far north, as well as south), and even if you and the aurora are both in the same place, you can’t count on the Earthly weather letting you see it.

If everything does fall into place, it’s sometimes hard to tell what you’re seeing. There are two good indicators that what you’re seeing is the Northern Lights: First, it should change as you watch it, sometimes dramatically quickly (one night, I saw thin white lines traversing the sky like windshield wipers, and about as quickly). Second, if you look at it through binoculars, you should be able to see stars through it clearly and unimpeded: Clouds will sometimes have the hazy look of an aurora, but they’ll block stars.

If you do think you might be seeing an aurora, even an unimpressive one, wait and watch for at least a half an hour. That’s about how long it takes for your eyes to fully adapt to the dark, which will let you see much better detail, and pick out different colors (the most common is a pale greenish, but you might also see reds, blues, or purples). Also, sometimes a display will get more impressive as the night passes, usually peaking around midnight or so (that’s 1 AM, DST, plus or minus a half-hour, depending on where you are in the timezone).

This guy takes his pictures in a state park in Ohio. He comes around to art fairs in my area, and he tells me that it’s possible to see the Northern Lights in most parts of the US, provided you can get away from the city lights.

This isn’t always true. Sure, if you’re standing in the middle of a big city you’re going to have a hard time seeing the Northern Lights. But “no settlement over 1000 people within 100 miles” is overkill if you’re far enough north. Them lights are BRIGHT.

Put it this way: I live in the largest city around, and although we’re not horrible for light pollution, it does exist. When I lived within a mile of downtown and a few blocks away from the local college’s sports dome (ie, lots of lights around it), I saw the Northern Lights on a regular basis. Big green and red sheets illuminating the whole sky.

So getting out of town may be necessary for you southerners, but c’mon up North, you can see 'em in the comfort of your own back yard.