The northern lights, also known as aurora borealis, are expected to be visible across parts of 13 states this week. Credit: Facebook/Adler Planetarium

CHICAGO — It is “highly unlikely” Illinoisans will be able to see the northern lights this week based on updated predictions, science experts said. 

Illinois was among the 16 states The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks predicted may catch a glimpse of the lights Wednesday and Thursday, but local experts and recent reports said that’s no longer the case. 

Brian Lada, an AccuWeather meteorologist who writes about astrology, said “nothing stands out” about this week’s expected geomagnetic activity — the process in which the sun hurls charged particles at the earth, creating the illuminated skies known as aurora borealis or the northern lights.

“I don’t think it’s going to be visible from Illinois,” Lada said.

Even if you traveled to the northernmost part of Illinois, you would still have to “cross your fingers that this really is stronger than forecasted,” he said.

“There is a very minor geomagnetic storm that could reach us this week, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary and I don’t think it’s gonna be anywhere close to Chicago, personally,” Lada said. 

The northern lights will likely be visible in parts of 13 other states 10 p.m.-2 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday, according to Michelle Nichols, director of public observing at the Adler Planetarium — but, she said, they’re “notoriously difficult to predict.” Those states are Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

“If you really want to see it, you might have to really travel outside of the city and really get lucky with this type of event,” Lada said.

For those who can’t make the trip across state lines, the University of Alaska Fairbanks will document the northern lights on their website starting Tuesday night through their space camera. Find it here

The last time Chicagoans saw the northern lights was April 23, Bryan Brasher, a project manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center told Block Club in a statement. 

It was the most significant outburst of the northern lights since 2003.

Chicagoans may strike out this time, but as we approach the solar maximum — the high point in the sun’s 11-year cycle when solar storms become frequent — there “should be” more chances for northern light appearances, Nichols said.

The solar maximum is predicted to peak in 2024 or 2025 and will remain active through 2028, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Over the next couple of years, I would not be surprised at all if we get more opportunities and hopefully one of them will stick,” Nichols said.

However, the rise in air pollution alerts across the city stemming from Canadian wildfire smoke and artificial light could still prevent Chicagoans from getting a clear view of the colored skies, Lada said.

“All those human created lights from the city and streetlights and highways just makes it too bright to see the aurora,” Lada said. “For any kind of stargazing event like that, we recommend people go out to darker areas, even just a local park where there might not be as many lights in the immediate area.”

As experts update their predictions about the northern lights, Nichols said people should remember that these changes are part of the nature of science. 

“People have a misconception about science that we know everything. And then once something gets out there [people think] ‘Oh, that’s the end all be all of everything. Oh, wait, oh, the scientists’ prediction changed? Oh, the scientists don’t know anything.’ It’s not true. It’s how science works.

“We get some information. We make a prediction. We get more information, we update the prediction, and this happens all the time. That’s the beauty behind it,” Nichols said.

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