Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Aurora Borealis

A solar flare with an eruptive prominence (photo by NOAA)
A solar flare with an eruptive prominence (photo by NOAA)


Every eleven years the Sun reaches a period of maximum surface activity, known as the solar maximum.  During this period, the Sun produces the greatest number of sun spots and associated phenomena, and generates intense "space weather". Very large solar flares and coronal mass ejections erupt from the Sun during the solar maximum, ejecting clouds of energetic debris toward Earth. When this material slams into our planet's upper atmosphere geomagnetic storms are created. The result of this solar activity can include potential hazards such as disruption of electronic communications and electrical power transmission. On the brighter side, a geomagnetic storm can trigger aurora borealis, or "Northern Light" displays, that might be visible in Maryland if the storm is strong enough. During periods of maximum solar activity, Marylanders have a better chance of viewing these spectacular light shows.

In 2000 the Sun experienced a solar maximum. In October and November of 2001 several coronal mass ejections occurred, creating aurora displays visible in Maryland. If you missed these events, you can see photos from October 2001, November 2001, and August, 2002 at Spaceweather.com.

Many Maryland residence were treated to a spectacular aurora display around midnight on November 8, 2004.   A resident in northern Maryland reported that although she 

"... noticed it from about midnight until about 12:20 am, likely it began earlier, but the peak was in this time for my location in Northern MD (close to the Pennsylvania border in Street). There was an *intense* sea green pulsating cloud near the horizon, and vertical "beams" of green shading to pink up to a max of about 2/3 the way to full overhead!"

Photos from November 2004's activity can be seen at the Spaceweather gallery.

photo by University of Alaska
photo by University of Alaska

Maryland is too far south to view most northern light displays, but they are occasionally visible.   Viewing the aurora this far south, and with the amount of night-time light pollution in the urban regions, is difficult at best. The best anyone can do to predict northern lights is to follow events in the weather on the sun’s surface, which is where auroras originate.   A few of the many web sites that report solar weather are listed below.   Spaceweather.com will send you an email notification when there is a potential for northern lights, if you sign up for this free service.

There really is no "best place" for viewing. You need to find an area that has an unobstructed view of the northern sky, and you must be far away from urban and suburban night "light pollution."   This means you should not be near a city, a mall, or other places that have a lot of bright lights at night.   This tends to give the sky a background glow that obscures northern lights. Some good places would be in the mountains, public parks or ball fields far out in the country.   If you watch the above web sites for predictions and are very lucky, you might see something.

If you are in an area that is relatively dark at night (away from urban night light), look to the north.  You might see the shimmering sheets, curtains and spires of multicolored, ionized gasses known as the Northern Lights.  There are a number of web sites devoted to predicting the space weather and aurora activity, that can alert you to potential displays.

Downloads and Links

For more information on aurora, see NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day pages, and these informative sites:

Compiled by the Maryland Geological Survey, 2300 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21218
This web page was prepared by Bob Conkwright, Division of Coastal and Estuarine Geology, Maryland Geological Survey. Please send comments on this page to Dale Shelton (dshelton@mgs.md.gov)