A common question is, “I heard on the nightly news that the aurora will be seen in my area. Is this true?” And the person asking is in Arkansas or similar latitude. Or they live in Washington DC with all the light pollution, not only in the city, but to the north for a few hundred miles.
The short answer is probably not. This is because of light pollution. The expanded answer is, it depends on the data.
“But I live in a dark area!”. Maybe. Light polluted cities affect areas a hundred miles away. Even remote and dark Fairbanks, Alaska has a light pollution problem.
Overall, getting a heads up from any source is ok! However, the news sources only follow space weather when the forecast is grand, big, exciting, or imminent. Many good shows are missed because the mass media did not report on it, or there may have been a “surprise” event, which does happen, but many times the surprise comes when the person was not watching the data by the hour or minute.
Many times the news sources are a day late. This is because of 2 reasons. The space weather forecast is in UTC time zone and not your local time zone. Second reason is because no matter the forecast, space weather forecasts can be off by several hours. And sometimes the forecast is wrong, or the directional component of the solar winds are not favorable for aurora watching. We are still learning what is and how the aurora is created. Our satellites tell us the data, and the data is interpreted by the scientists. Hobbyist aurora watchers find data interpretation very exciting. Space weather forecasting is harder than weather forecasting, and is inaccurate much of the time.
Most of the time when written mass media reports possible northern lights, they will add other information to their post that is wildly inaccurate, or attach random, old, or bad sources. Read the post with hope but decide on whether is it from space weather experts with aurora experience. Then verify with the actual space weather forecast.
A view of the northern lights from a mid latitude location will look different than a big event seen from high latitudes (such as interior Alaska or northern Canada). Light pollution is a major factor in viewing. You CAN see the northern lights with the naked eye, but light pollution of any kind will affect the brightness of the aurora. From lower latitudes, unless you are witnessing a big event that is overhead, most likely you will see a glow of color on the horizon. Your camera or phone camera is more sensitive than your eyes, so it will pick up faint color easier.
For those that have to drive, protect your night vision. Find a dark spot facing north. Turn off your headlights and dash board lights. Do not drive around. Pick a spot and stay there. Don’t stare at your bright phone.
This page will be expanded on. Last update: May 7, 2023.