Southern B.C. could get rare chance to see the northern lights

British Columbians and even people living in the Lower Mainland could get a rare chance to see the northern lights on Friday night.

The prospect of an unusually strong Aurora Borealis is the result of an unusually strong solar storm spraying magnetized particles towards the earth, explained Matthew Cimone, head interpreter at Vancouver’s H.R. MacMillan Space Centre and Planetarium.

“When they hit the magnetic field of our planet and interact with our atmosphere, they will generate aurora,” he said.

“If the storm ends up being as intense as it possibly could be, we might get aurora all the way south into Portland, so it will definitely pass over our region.”

Click to play video: 'Spectacular northern lights treat plane passengers to stunning show'

Spectacular northern lights treat plane passengers to stunning show

The incoming space weather is the result of X-class solar flares — massive particle ejections at the top end of our rating classifications, he explained.

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That’s resulted in a G4 solar storm, on a scale where G1 is the weakest and G5 is the most extreme, Cione said.

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The storm is projected to be strong enough that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said it is “a little concerned” about potential disruptive effects on satellites, GPS and power grids.

How to see the northern lights

All that science, Cimone said, means there is a high potential for a rare light show — particularly given that clear skies are forecast over much of southern B.C.

He said the action could be visible as early as 8 p.m. but is predicted to peak around 2 a.m.

“They are beautiful. It’s I mean, it’s something — aurora itself is just breathtaking,” he said.

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While there is the possibility the lights will be visible from within Metro Vancouver, Cimone said your best bet is to get to the darkest location you can.

“If you’re in a big city like Vancouver, it tends to get washed out sometimes by light pollution and that kind of thing,” he said.

“If you can get even an hour outside the city, with a clear northern view, that will definitely help your chances to see the aurora if it occurs tonight.”

Click to play video: 'Local photographer captures amazing Aurora display over Cape Breton Highlands'

Local photographer captures amazing Aurora display over Cape Breton Highlands

Cimone said if the aurora is weaker, you still may be able to capture it on camera by using a tripod and taking a long-exposure shot.

Cimone said the public is also invited down to the Planetarium for its regular Friday night star-watching event. While the lighting conditions are not ideal, the venue could pay off if the aurora is not as bright as predicted, he said.

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“At the very least, we have our telescope open, so you can see stuff in space anyway that we know for sure will be there,” he said.

“There’s always something going on in the sky to see, even if it’s just the clear night of the constellations — it’s always worth looking up from the planet, out into the cosmos and knowing that you’re a living creature in the universe.”

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