Nature loves to put on a show. Nowhere does science and wonder coincide better than in the northern lights, aka the aurora borealis, which occasionally make an appearance over Washington. Usually we know it's coming, like when the Space Weather Prediction Center from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—say that five times fast—issues a geomagnetic storm watch.
What does that mean? Nature might be gearing up for its own brand of costume party with a burst of sky color. NOAA makes such predictions when, say, the sun spits out a big solar flare and Coronal Mass Ejection, which hits the earth and affects the atmosphere. Such storms are rated using a "G" scale, something the department uses to determine possible impacts on earth—like whether the space activity is intense enough to affect modern technology. (Yes, sometimes the space weather forecast sounds like a panicked character in a superhero movie.)
The aurora borealis are a thrilling event that have inspired legend for centuries, though they can be as elusive sometimes as an orca sighting in the San Juans. The tricky and unpredictable phenomenon is caused by solar activity but shows up in the night sky near the poles. When they do show, the lights can appear as anything from a slight haze to a multicolor, dancing show.
So while there are no guarantees, there are a few ways to increase one's chances of spotting the northern lights if they do come out to play. First, get away from city lights (and clouds); viewers need a clear vista to the north. It helps when the moon is in its waning or new phases, with little additional light from up high. Start scanning the sky just after sunset—all the more reason they are most spectacular in winter, when the day ends early—and check NOAA's 30-minute aurora forecast.
While Seattle sightings aren't impossible, out-of-town vantage points have a higher chance of visible lights. Some possible viewing spots:
• Snoqualmie Point Park just off I-90 in the town of Snoqualmie has decent sight lines and easy access from Seattle.
• Hikes around the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier travel to clear nightlines to the north, though the road is only open in summer; Dege Peak is one relatively short trek, though night hiking experience is recommended.
• A road winds up Mount Erie near Anacortes in a city park.
• Across the water from Anacortes, the fire lookout on Mount Constitution on Orcas Island opens up sight lines from its 2,400-foot summit, accessed via a paved road open year-round.
• Sun Mountain Lodge near Winthrop boasts views up the Methow Valley, mostly toward the north—plus a killer pool and hot tub.
The northern lights are celebrated around the world as a natural phenomenon but also as a good omen or sign of ancestors come back to visit. Photographers use various shutter speeds to capture them, so an in-person experience looks a little different from professional photos. Even a tiny taste of the dancing lights, however, makes for an indelible memory.