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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The Northern Lights return to the Inland Northwest this week. Here’s how best to see them.

The northern lights appear on the north end of Hauser Lake, Idaho, along Ragged Ridge in February.  (BRIAN PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A spectacular and all-natural light show is coming to locations near you.

High geomagnetic activity will provide great conditions for viewing the aurora borealis Thursday night in the Inland Northwest.

Paul Yost, president of the Spokane Astronomical Society, will be chasing the lights himself. He said that he has only seen them a few times, but that each time has been memorable.

“They are pretty phenomenal,” Yost said.

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are a natural phenomenon caused by electron collisions with nitrogen and oxygen molecules, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). When geomagnetic activity increases, so does the activity of the auroras.

Geomagnetic activity is measured by what is called the Kp Index on a scale of 0 to 9. For the northern lights to extend to lower latitudes, the Kp value has to be moderately high.

The Kp value will be 6 on Thursday, according to NOAA, high enough for the auroras to reach the Spokane region.

The best viewing hours for the lights will be from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. More rural areas – such as Cheney, North Spokane, Hauser or Rathdrum – with less light pollution are typically better viewing areas, according to the World Atlas of Night Sky Brightness.

For a true dark sky experience (and a better shot at seeing the auroras clearly), Paul Yost, president of the Spokane Astronomical Society, recommended Fishtrap Recreation Area, where the society hosts its stargazing sessions. Fishtrap is off Interstate 90 toward Ritzville.

Fishtrap’s benefits go beyond accessibility.

“It’s a good spot,” Yost said. “It’s dark. There’s a little glow from Spokane to the East, but there’s not a lot of light to the North, where the auroras will be.”

Yost uses a telescope whenever he goes stargazing.

“For me, it’s fun to show people what’s up there,” he said.

But this week, a telescope likely won’t be needed to see the northern lights.

“They’re naked eye visible,” Yost said. “You can see them a lot more often than people think. From here they don’t go super high. They’re pretty low. They don’t move super-fast, about as fast as a minute hand on a clock. But they’ll light up the sky.”

The auroras will likely be red instead of the typical green because of their Southern nature.

Further North, where the aurora borealis is more common, the lights will be more vivid and seem to dance and move. They will be less dramatic here, especially because it’s summer, according to Yost.

“Summer aurora are going to be a little washed out and not as exciting,” Yost said. “They’re best September through April because winter nights are darker.”

Ken Burns, a meteorologist with the Spokane National Weather Service, predicts good viewing conditions.

“There’s a good likelihood of clear skies on Thursday night,” Burns said.

Yost gives a tip to everyone wanting to dive deeper into stargazing: come check out the Astronomical society.

“Come to the general meeting, come to Fishtrap,” Yost said. “It’s free and open to the public.”

Paige Van Buren's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.