A meteorological phenomenon that has floored mankind for millennia, aurora borealis is a vivid light display that paints unbelievable colors across the night sky.
Better known as the Northern Lights, modern technology has let us understand and measure this natural wonder, but doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring.
People travel across the globe in order to see it, but you don’t need to pack for Iceland just yet. The event can happen much closer to home.
Can you see the northern lights in Ohio?
Aurora borealis’ more common name can be misleading. They are referred to as the Northern Lights because they occur in the northern hemisphere (in the southern hemisphere, the Southern Lights are the aurora australis), and not because you need to be north to see them – an especially important fact as “north” is a relative concept.
Someone in Ontario is more north than someone in Ohio, but both have the chance to see the northern lights.
It is more likely you’ll see them, the further north you are, but sightings of the aurora have been recorded as far south as Florida! So, yes, it is definitely possible to see them in Ohio.
When was the last time the northern lights was visible in Ohio?
Odds are in your favor, as the most recent siting of the Northern Lights in Ohio was only just in 2021.
On Tuesday, October 12th, meteorologists across the country recorded sightings of the aurora not just in the usual upper regions like Washington State, but as far sound as Denver, Colorado.
Look on a map and you’ll see that Denver actually sits in line with Ohio, where residents claimed to have seen the Northern Lights dancing over Lake Erie. Locals even have photographic proof.
One Northern Lights admirer, Don Martin, vividly remembers seeing the Northern Lights on display in 1941 when he was only six years old.
It was a memory that stuck with him throughout his life as the event was so grand that it spanned across the country to the extent that many thought Judgement Day had come, that the Nazis were attacking with some new technology, the display was so vivid.
Police stations and even the Hayden Planetarium in New York were inundated with phone calls that evening by awed and concerned viewers.
How often do the Northern Lights appear in Ohio?
Since then, such a widespread and large-scale display has not been recorded. News articles dotting across the years forecast the possibility of seeing the aurora.
Reports from 2015 and 2020 claim you’ll see the Lights on such and such a day, weather permitting, but no awe-inspiring reports like the one from 1941 followed.
Martin spent his life researching the Lights, having glimpsed them a few times in the following decade, but never to the extent of the 1941 display.
He’s regularly questioned those younger than him, born just after that large magnetic storm, who claim they’ve never witnessed the Northern Lights.
What is the KP-Index and how does that relate to seeing the northern lights in Ohio?
It’s possible to forecast the Northern Lights’ appearance thanks to the Kp-index.
It is a scale from 0 to 9 that rates the likelihood of the aurora, with 0 meaning extremely unlikely visibility and 9 denoting an extreme geomagnetic storm.
The Kp-index is measured by recording the geomagnetic activity at certain places across the globe over a three hour period.
Meteorologists then use an algorithm adjusted to the latitude at which the recording was measured to determine the odds of seeing the Northern Lights in that location.
Anything below a 4 and you are unlikely to see the Lights. Middle latitudes need more of a 7 to be able to see them, while lower latitudes (closer to the equator) need an 8 or 9.
Ohio is decently situated. According to the Kp-index, a 6 is needed for guaranteed visibility from Columbus, Ohio; however, the state’s north coast on Lake Erie is more or less even with Chicago, whose Kp-index is a 5.
Your location in the state can affect your Northern Lights viewing.
Best Places To See The Northern Lights In Ohio
Burr Oak State Park
On the edge of Wayne National Forest, Burr Oak State Park covers a whopping 2,500+ acres of land.
There are no entrance fees, but it does cost to reserve accommodation – Burr Oak is a popular place for vacation rentals.
You can camp out or rent a private cottage or stay in the lodge. It’s a convenient location for late-night sky gazing, as you don’t have to leave the premises if you’re staying on them.
However, it has no Dark Sky-type designations, is full of woodland, and is in the southern end of Ohio, making it a less likely (though not impossible) place to view the aurora.
Cowan Lake State Park
Cowan Lake is a 1,775 acre State Park full of woodland trails encircling the lake. There are campgrounds on the northern side of the lake to stay at.
Overnight visitors can admire the night sky across the wide expanse of the lake that stretches over 2.5 miles wide.
The lake is just an hour outside of Cincinnati, though, making it one of the southern-most location on our list and least likely candidate for Northern Lights viewing.
Only if the Kp-index is promising would we recommend trying.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the only National Park in Ohio and measures at 33,000 acres.
It is distinct as it sits in between Cleveland and Akron. It is a place of natural beauty but also social and cultural history.
There are no places to camp in the National Park, but many areas are technically open 24 hours, allowing you to escape the city lights throughout the night.
Its proximity to the two cities makes it a great location to visit for urban night sky watchers.
John Glenn Astronomy Park
John Glenn Astronomy Park is an ideal location for trying to catch the Northern Lights as it’s dedicated to astronomy (in case the name didn’t tell you).
They offer guided stargazing programs, depending on the forecast, though the Park itself is “open to the public at all hours of the day and night. Just drive on in.”
All visits, even guided programs, are free because it’s a non profit.
Stonelick State Park
Not far from Cowan Lake, Stonelick State Park is another haven for boaters, campers, and fishermen.
It’s slightly smaller, with less camping options, but is located closer to Cincinnati.
The twisted form of the lake offers a smaller canvas of open sky above the water, interrupting the view a bit.
As it’s open for overnight visitors, you’d be able to go to the park at night without having to camp, if the Northern Lights forecast is looking promising and you want to drive out from Cincinnati.
Strouds Run is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, not far from Wayne National Forest.
Home to Ohio University’s aquatic sports clubs, it’s a popular location for swimming and rowing on the artificial Dow Lake.
It also has plenty of hiking trails and allows hunting in the summer months. You can camp in the park, far from the big cities and severe light pollution.
Wayne National Forest
Wayne National Forest is the only one in Ohio. Just up the road from Strouds Run, it is also in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
It is 7x the size of Cuyahoga Valley. It’s an ideal location for almost every outdoor activity you can think of, but also great for scenic drives, although we’d recommend parking if you want to try and catch the aurora.
You can camp here, but fires are permitted so they may interrupt nighttime views.
Fry Family Park
Fry Family Park is a 360-acre county park in northeast Ohio, just over 30 minutes south of Akron. In between the hardwood forests, there are rolling swathes of grassland and wetlands open to the sky.
It is an official Urban Night Sky Place, meaning that it’s certified to do its best to not contribute to light pollution and give the most natural nighttime experience possible, making it ideal for stargazing … or aurora viewing!
Entry is free, but the park does close at 11 pm.
Observatory Park is less than 20 miles from the coast of Lake Erie and just under an hour’s drive from Cleveland.
The purpose of the park should be obvious by its name. It’s an ideal location for nighttime sky viewing.
Three times the size of Fry Family Park, Observatory Park also has free admission and specializes in night sky viewing and astronomy.
It is also a designated Dark Sky Park.
Tips for seeing the Northern Lights:
Look up! You don’t need to worry about owning fancy equipment. Professionals say you can of course use a telescope but the aurora is best seen with the naked eye or with binoculars. Get too up close and you’ll miss the broad canvas of color.
Check the forecast. The regular weather one, as well as the Kp-index. If the index predicts a 5, 6, or 7 in Ohio you’re likely to be able to see the lights! If it’s a cloudy night, though, they could still be occurring, but be masked to your eyes by the clouds.
Have a nap. The Lights can happen any time after dark, but are typically best and most likely between 10pm and 3am. People have seen them easily enough around dinner time, but it could be that you’re up all night waiting.
Leave civilization. Okay, not permanently. But, the closer you are to town the more likely light pollution is to interrupt your views. Some natural areas might be conveniently located, but the horizon can still be marred by nearby city lights.
Go prepared. You could be in for a long vigil. Bring camp chairs to get comfortable in and snacks, but don’t light a campfire or it’ll ruin your view. If you’re keeping an eye out in winter, make sure you bring blankets and maybe a thermos of warm drink.
While the ones seen in 2021 hardly compare to the grandeur of the Northern Lights witnessed in Ohio exactly 80 years ago, they do seem to be the most notable occurrence since, leading us to believe that the Lights are wholly possible to be seen in Ohio.
It may not seem often in the scope of a human lifetime, but for such a southern position in the hemisphere, odds are greater than you may think.