The Northern Lights are an awe-inspiring dance of wondrous colors in the night sky. A spectacle so glorious that everyone needs to see once in their life.
When you think of the Northern Lights, places like Norway, Canada, Iceland and Alaska immediately come to mind, but you’ll be surprised to learn that the northern lights on a rare occasion make their way south of the United States.
Can You See the Northern Lights in Chicago?
It’s not uncommon for the northern lights to actually reach Chicago, however seeing it in Chicago is very improbable, if not impossible.
There are few things working against seeing the northern lights in Chicago.
First and foremost, there is too much light pollution in Chicago. Light pollution is the worst thing that’s happened to astronomy.
Light pollution is the ever present light from our cities that gets into the atmosphere, causes all atmospheric light to scatter and utterly blur out our viewing of the infinite cosmos and the northern lights.
Secondly, Chicago is not close enough to the arctic circle.
The locations near the arctic circle are the best viewing locations for the northern lights, in terms of frequency and intensity. If you live in Alaska or Norway, the northern lights might be intensely visible, a few times a week.
In places like Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota and North Dakota, they might only be faintly visible a few times a year.
And in a place like Chicago or Utah, the northern lights may appear very faintly every few years. Because it is so faint, the light pollution will dissipate any viewing of the northern lights into nothingness.
(Places near the Arctic Circle are the best locations to view the northern lights)
Have the Northern Lights Ever Been Visible in Chicago?
There is NO evidence, photo or video, that points to the Northern Lights ever being visible in the city of Chicago. An astronomer who works at the planetarium, claimed to have seen them once in Chicago, but there was no evidence presented.
In 2015, a coronal mass ejection hit Earth and sparked an geomagnetic storm that allowed places which rarely see the northern lights to catch a glimpse, places like North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Chicago. However, someone living in Chicago would have needed to drive far outside of the city to escape the city lights to catch a glimpse.
What Kind of Conditions Would Make it Possible to See the Northern Lights in Chicago?
To see the northern lights in Chicago, a few criteria would need to be met.
First, a geomagnetic storm would need to hit the earth, which would allow the northern lights to drift south.
Secondly, a massive blackout of the entire city of Chicago would need to take place, which would allow unfettered views of the sky above.
Thirdly, this should all take place on a day of the month when the moon is not full and the sky is devoid of clouds. If the northern lights are weak, which it will be in our case, it can be muddied by the light of a strong full moon.
In addition, clouds are a northern lights hunter’s second worst enemy. While you can travel out of the range of light pollution, out maneuvering clouds is an improbable task.
How Far South Of Chicago Have The Northern Lights Been Visible?
During solar events that occurred around October of 2003, the Northern Lights was visible as far south as California, Texas and Georgia. In 1859, during the largest geomagnetic storm ever recorded in history, the aurora were visible as far south as Cuba and El Salvador!
How Far North of Chicago Do You Have to Travel to See the Northern Lights?
Although you can’t see the Northern Lights from Chicago, there are plenty of places nearby where you can see them in their full luminous glory.
Newport State Park – Wisconsin (285 Miles North Of Chicago)
Newport State Park is located at the tip of Door Peninsula near Ellison Bay and covers over 2,373-acres.
The International Dark-Sky Association named Newport a Dark-sky preserve in 2017.
A dark sky preserve is a protected area, park or land, that makes a special commitment to reducing or eliminating light pollution in all forms and which serves to promote star gazing and astronomy.
Newport State Park is the perfect place to view the northern lights if you were to make the trek out of Chicago.
Wisconsin – Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (413 Miles North-West Of Chicago)
Chequamegon is a National Forest in northern Wisconsin that covers over a million and a half acres.
The best spot to view the northern lights from Chequamegon is from St. Peter’s Dome. It offers sweeping, uninterrupted views of the entire forest and the night sky. The only caveat is that you will have to hike 3.8 miles and climb 505ft of elevation. It might not be practical for someone who is inexperienced at hiking at night.
(Related: The Best Places To See The Northern Lights In Wisconsin)
Tips For Seeing The Northern Lights
- Your chances of seeing the auroras increases the farther you are away from light pollution. Drive to a remote location where you can see the Milky Way. If you can see the Milky Way, you will be able to see the northern lights
- The Northern Lights are most visible in the hours around midnight. This is when the widest part of the aurora passes over the northern part of the sky.
- The best months to see the Northern lights are the end of September or mid-March. During a more than 50 year period, researchers found that the northern lights occur most frequently in September and March
- Check the weather forecast beforehand. Your chances of seeing the northern lights will depend greatly on whether or not the skies are clear.
- There are Aurora forecasts websites and even an Aurora Forecast app. They have real time forecast, plus information on making long-term predictions (up to a month in advance)
- Look north when searching for the northern lights. Ensure you have a method which tells you where north is.
The problem with the northern lights in Chicago isn’t about whether or not they occur in the city, which it does. The problem stems from having an unobstructed view of the lights, which is nearly an impossible task.
Chicago is a major metropolitan city with over 2.7 million people living in it. There are lights emanating from every nook and cranny of the city and as we have mentioned before, light pollution are aurora hunters worst enemy.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the perfect storm of conditions to see the northern lights in Chicago. You probably have a better chance of winning the lottery while being struck by lightning.
Go north, far away from the light pollution, research the aurora forecast and you will significantly increase your chances of seeing that extraordinary light show in the sky.