We're all familiar with terrestrial weather forecasts, but did you know that NOAA has a department dedicated to predicting space weather? It's appropriately named the Space Weather Prediction Center, and they've predicted a moderate or "G2" space storm that will peak today and tomorrow (9/28-9/29). The website is full of technical jargon that many of us might not completely understand, but a space storm means that geomagnetic energy is strong enough during the event that the Northern Lights may be visible to a fairly large portion of the northern United States, including all of Montana.

Aurora Borealis can be spectacular the further north you travel. Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska are obviously prime viewing locations, but with dark skies you may be lucky enough to catch the show around Billings. The night skies should be relatively cloud free this week, but you'll need to get out of town if you hope to see anything. Most of us don't have time to drive to the Hi-Line, so here are a few spots about 40 minutes or less from Billings that may give you chance to see the show.

 

Molt Road/Buffalo Trail

Credit: Google

It gets pretty dark out towards the intersection of Molt Road and Buffalo Trail. There is a parking area right near the intersection of the two paved roads, as well as two or three little pull-off areas right around where I put the X on the map.

17 Mile

Credit: Google

17 Mile is located seventeen miles (duh) north of Billings on Highway 87, headed towards Roundup. During the day, it's a popular undeveloped shooting range on public land. Nobody in their right mind will be out shooting guns in the dark, so this would be a great spot to catch the meteor shower this week. There is plenty of room to spread out from your fellow sky watchers.

Acton

Credit: Google

Make it a Northern Lights date night and head to Acton. Swing by the 3 North Bar and Grill for a bite to eat and a cocktail, then head towards the Yellowstone Dragstrip and find a safe place off the side of the road to park. If you don't see any lights, you can always pretend you're in high school and make out in the car.

Columbus Molt Road

Credit: Google

Columbus Molt Road crosses over I-90 a few miles east of Columbus. There are no on/off ramps, so either take Old Highway 10 from Park City (watch for deer) or take the interstate to Columbus and back-track a little bit on Highway 10. Head north on Columbus Molt Road until you are away from town and highway lights and find a spot off the road to park.

Other tips:

  • Don't block a road or highway.
  • Don't trespass on private property.
  • Bring a blanket or a reclining lawn chair.
  • Be patient. You might not see anything at first. Some people compare spotting the Northern Lights to whale watching. You might see a lot, or you might get skunked.
  • Let your eyes adjust! This means TURNING OFF YOUR PHONE. Sitting in the car with the dome light on basically guarantees disappointment.
  • Watch the northern horizon. In Montana, the Aurora Borealis will probably not be high in the sky, especially this far south.
  • Don't litter. This seems like a no-brainer, but everywhere I go outdoors I see piles of trash, beer cans, diapers and other garbage discarded from thoughtless people.
  • Be extremely careful with cigarette butts or random sparks. It's dry this time of year and fire danger is high.

Have fun! If you'd like to take pictures, don't expect very good results with your phone. A real camera, tripod and long exposure setting is the only option. A time lapse video might be cool, like this one captured in Minnesota over the weekend.

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