Minnesota and other cold weather states may see a spectacular northern lights display Thursday as a huge solar storm squashes the Earth's magnetic field and lights up the sky.
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, normally shimmer at latitudes north of Minnesota. Scientists, however, say this solar storm is so massive it will drive the lights much farther south over the next few days.
The best viewing times will be in the hours around midnight, said Cynthia Cattell, associate head of the University of Minnesota School of Physics and Astronomy.
The storm starts as a large volume of plasma bursting from the sun, traveling at speeds up to several million miles per hour, Cattell said. It forms a shockwave in front of it that distorts Earth's magnetic field when it hits it, dumping lots of energy into the field, leading to intense auroras.
The power of this storm is good news for northern lights lovers in the Twin Cities.
"You can get very, very dramatic, rapidly moving, colorful lights with this storm," Cattell said. "It will move down to our latitude without having to drive to northern Minnesota." The more energy in the storm system, the more intense the lights, she said.
Finding a dark spot is still important for viewing, she said. "The main thing in the Twin Cities is you have to get out of the city -- there's so much ambient light from all the city lights."
The Twin Cities will be in and out of cloud cover during the key hours, so you'll need to pick a viewing location carefully, said MPR News meteorologist Paul Huttner.
Amateur astronomer David Falkner will search for the northern lights tonight from Rochester, Minn.
"I'm most excited about the fact that auroras can have different shapes. Sometimes they look like curtains, sometimes they look like spires," said Falkner, president of the Minnesota Astronomical Society.
"A lot of times there are different colors -- greens, pinks, blues. I'll be interested to see what colors and patterns come out. It can be quite beautiful."
Places as far south as Colorado and central Illinois could spot the dancing lights in the sky.
The flares will come from one of the largest sunspots in the current solar cycle --- big enough to swallow Earth three times over. It may disrupt GPS devices Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.