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January 9, 2014

Aurora borealis might be visible in southwestern Pa. tonight

JOHNSTOWN — If the clouds part, and the moon is not too bright, and charged electrons and protons from the sun hit the Earth’s atmosphere just right, then the aurora borealis might light up the western Pennsylvania sky tonight.

On Tuesday, an intense solar flare shot from the sun, sending a particle stream toward the Earth. Because of the explosion’s strength, the northern lights, which are usually limited to higher latitudes, might become visible as far south as the Laurel Highlands.

“It’s a possibility,” said Mark Paquette, an AccuWeather meteorologist in State College. “I wouldn’t say it’s a very strong possibility.”

Several factors might limit visibility.

The moon will be about half-full on Thursday night and into early Friday, meaning it will cast a lot of light into the darkness and hamper the aurora’s ability to shine. Plus, there is no way to precisely predict how many sun particles will collide with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is what causes the light display. AccuWeather is also calling for cloudy conditions and even some snow from between sunset slightly after 5 p.m. and sunrise around 7:30 a.m.

“Just because of the clouds, any atmospheric event is going to be tough to see,” Paquette said.

Paquette thinks anybody hoping to have at least a 50 percent chance of viewing the lights would need to be near the border between Pennsylvania and New York. The chance of even catching a glimpse of the lights is slight for anybody south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

In general, sky watchers can increase their chances of seeing the aurora by getting away from city lights and going into a darker rural area, preferably at a high elevation.

Pennsylvania is home to what is considered one of the best places to view the night sky in the eastern United States. Cherry Springs State Park, located in Potter County, is surrounded by 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest, which isolates it from city lights. There were at least five sightings of the northern lights at Cherry Springs in 2013, according to the park’s manager, Chip Harrison.

“We’re just a very remote location,” said Harrison. “There really is no light pollution.”

Harrison expects only a handful of people to visit the park in hopes of seeing the northern lights tonight.

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.

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