On December 9 2020, “Northern Lights” trended on Twitter, due in part to scattered reports that the phenomena might be visible to some Americans:
Twitter highlighted a December 8 2020 Thrillist.com item titled “The Northern Lights Will Be Visible Over the U.S. This Week. Here’s How to See Them.” A subheading indicated the dates “could be the biggest solar storm of 2020,” reporting:
The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued G1, G2, and G3 geomagnetic storm watches for the nights of Wednesday, December 9, and Thursday, December 10. The brief period of a G3 storm alert on the night of December 9 could mean that the northern lights will be seen relatively far south in the continental United States. If it arrives as expected, that could mean a view as far south as parts of northern Illinois and Pennsylvania, among many other places across the country.
The watches issued by the SWPC are a measure of the solar activity hitting Earth’s atmosphere. That solar energy can result in the beautiful auroral displays visible at both of the Earth’s poles. When an especially strong burst of solar energy from a coronal mass ejection (CME) arrives, that can make the aurora borealis visible in areas where it doesn’t appear with much frequency. You know, like much of the US.
Those predictions, however, are forecasts and not guarantees. “While SWPC forecasters are fairly confident in CME arrival at Earth, timing and geomagnetic storm intensity are less certain,” the center wrote in its alert.
Noting that the “SWPC has not released a map showing the potential southern reach” of the aurora borealis, Thrillist.com referenced a September 2020 map, and said a G3 category storm might affect specific regions, including:
… an area around the yellow line on the map [which] includes northern Idaho, a sliver of Illinois and Indiana, northern Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, northern Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, in addition to all of Alaska and Canada.
By contrast, the site said a G1 level storm affected “the northernmost parts of the country,” such as “parts of Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine.” (The site apparently forgot about Alaska.) Local news outlets geotargeted their coverage to their regions, like Milwaukee-area TMJ4 News, and the Twin Cities’ KMSP-TV:
In additional reporting, KMSP-TV added that “all of Minnesota” might see the Northern Lights if skies were clear on December 9 and 10 2020. They also referenced a tweet by one of its meteorologists, which included a map of colored bands indicating how far south the phenomena might be visible:
In a response tweet, meteorologist Cody Matz said just before sunrise and after sunset on December 10 2020 as optimal viewing times in the area:
Another meteorologist from the same news station indicated that the storms were “in effect” through December 11 2020, advising social media users to get away from light pollution, hope for clear skies, and to look north:
WTVC meteorologist Erin Thomas addressed viewers in Tennessee said that both the possibility and intensity were likely faint, but worth looking for:
To the north and east, outlets such as Syracuse-area @CNYCentral reported that “parts” of Central and Northern New York could see the phenomenon:
Another meteorologist in Upstate New York said that the opportunity to view the Northern Lights was low in the area due to cloudy skies:
New England news organizations also provided regional information for Boston and greater Massachusetts:
NOAA issued a Geomagnetic Storm Watch spanning December 9 through December 11 2020, leading to headlines and social media chatter about possible sightings of the aurora borealis in various areas of the United States. Meteorologists advised viewers how best to catch a glimpse in their specific regions (including the best dates and times of day), and noted that issues such as cloud cover and light pollution remained a factor in their visibility. It was true the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights over parts of the Lower 48 emerged in December 2020, but conditions and location remained a primary factor in whether specific states and cities were likely to spot them.