5 things to know about the Northern Lights show happening in Washington this weekend

WASHINGTON — Thousands of people have converged on the Tidal Basin for one of the most popular events of the year: A spectacular light show that appears when the Earth’s aurora borealis, also known…

5 things to know about the Northern Lights show happening in Washington this weekend

WASHINGTON — Thousands of people have converged on the Tidal Basin for one of the most popular events of the year: A spectacular light show that appears when the Earth’s aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, aligns with the sun’s light.

Spectators are gathering under bright, open skies between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument on Sunday evening for an annual event that’s mesmerizing in its own right. This year is also notable in another respect: This will be the first time the show has been visible from Washington during President Donald Trump’s inauguration and his second anniversary as commander in chief.

Here are five things to know about the electrifying event:

HOW EXACTLY DOES IT HAPPEN?

Researchers at NASA are watching the sun for the expected fast-moving coronal mass ejection, or CME, which is expected to make landfall somewhere between Antarctica and the Mariana Islands early Monday morning.

While CMEs are thought to be a direct cause of the aurora, they’re not actually known to produce a big aurora, said Jim Dean, head of the science operations at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Instead, they tend to scatter a cloud of electrons and protons of varying intensities, resulting in a rainbow of different colors. Northern lights, or aurora borealis, occur when that colorful air in the cloud interacts with oxygen, nitrogen and other molecules and generates light. The largest and brightest are dimmer than those in the south.

“There is a whole group of particles, but what makes the aurora is this random mix of particles from all different directions,” Dean said.

HOW COULD A CME AFFECT US?

This particular geomagnetic storm is relatively small, but could cause a ripple in the electrical grid at high latitudes. The lights appear as a geomagnetic storm and aren’t expected to cause a blackout.

The threat is far lower than the magnitude-6 solar storms of 1859 or the one in 1989 that sent a radiation cloud into Earth’s atmosphere.

“This is a fairly low-volume geomagnetic storm,” said Jessica Langford, a space physicist at the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s very localized, which means it may not have much of an effect.”

HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE WATCHING?

More than 200,000 people a year listen for the sound of the northern lights from Northern Ireland, France, Norway, Finland, and Sweden; and more than 2 million attend the same event in Scotland. Data from the University of Liverpool shows that an estimated 2 million people watch the Northern Lights from sites in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, Northern Africa, the Middle East, Asia, South America, Mexico, and Central America.

WHAT ARE YOU WATCHING?

National Park Service officials are expecting about 30,000 people by late Sunday evening, said Jamie Richards, the park’s chief of interpretation. Those who can’t get into the Tidal Basin can watch the show at Blair House, the nation’s oldest standing residence built in 1809, a few blocks away.

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