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The Science Behind The Northern Lights And How To See It In Wisconsin

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The northern lights are one of the night sky's greatest shows and with a little research, can be seen around the Milwaukee-area.

The northern lights are one of the most incredible celestial sights that the night sky has to offer.

But often the beautiful dancing lights are associated with treks to far north areas like Alaska or Canada. While going farther north does improve the chances of seeing the northern lights, Lake Effect astronomy contributor Jean Creighton says residents of southeast Wisconsin don’t have to travel far to get the experience.

“It certainly improves if you go north of [Milwaukee], not only because you’ll be in a darker sky so it’ll be easier to see but also the farther north you go, the better northern lights you’re going to see, that’s just how it is,” she says.

Creighton says she’s had the chance to experience the northern lights in a few different locations from the Milwaukee area to Calgary, Alberta, but the most impressive show she's seen was from NASA’s largest moving observatory — a modified Boeing 747 jet called SOFIA.  

“We were at 45,000 feet and the northern lights were truly breathtaking and it truly looked the way you see in, you know, really professional pictures that are taken in Sweden and it was that kind of gorgeousness,” she says.

Creighton explains that the reason that northern lights are easier to find further north is because particles from the sun passing by the Earth are attracted to the magnetic poles of the planet. Those particles are pulled into the atmosphere near the North Pole and collide with either oxygen or nitrogen and that creates a release of energy and leads to the colorful lights.

“That process of letting extra energy let go in the form of light is what we see as northern lights,” she says.

But how do you know when the northern lights are visible in Wisconsin? Check the KP index.

It’s a scale that ranges from zero to nine and measures the activity of the sun. Creighton says that in Wisconsin, a six or higher means a chance to see a light show in the night sky.

“You need to know where you are on the Earth and you need to know how active the sun is, and that will be measured by the KP index,” she says.

Manfred Olsen Planetarium at UWM will be giving a live virtual presentation on the science behind the northern lights on March 12 and 13.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
Dr. Jean Creighton has always been inspired by how the cosmos works. She was born in Toronto, Ontario and grew up in Athens, Greece where her mother claims she showed a great interest in how stars form from the age of five. She studied physics at the University of Athens and went on to earn a Master’s degree from Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Waterloo. She began teaching astronomy at UW-Milwaukee in 1999 and in 2007, she took over as director of UWM's Manfred Olson Planetarium.
Jack Hurbanis started as the WUWM Digital Intern in January 2020, transitioning to Assistant Digital Producer in July.