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Missed the lights? Aurora borealis may illuminate Bay Area again tonight

Red aurora-like lights streak across the night sky above glowing city lights and a calm lake.
Northern lights illuminate the sky of San Francisco North Bay as seen from China Camp Beach in San Rafael. | Source: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images

Bay Area locals saw the night skies illuminated purple with the glow of aurora borealis last night due to a massive and rare geomagnetic storm that made the dazzling natural phenomena visible farther south than normal. 

If you missed the spectacle, fear not—experts say it might make a comeback.

The light show could put on a dazzling encore over the next two nights, according to Mike Bettwy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Bettwy told The Standard Saturday that the solar storm behind the lights could last as long as Monday or Tuesday.

But he said peak viewing in the San Francisco Bay Area might actually come Sunday night when the massive spewings of plasma, protons and other charged particles from the sun hit the Earth’s atmosphere, creating the darting ribbons of light and glowing purple skies visible throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

“I do think tonight will be good,” Bettwy predicted on Saturday. “Maybe not quite as good as last night, but still a fairly good chance, including for the Bay Area. Now tomorrow night may actually be as good as last night was because we're expecting another impulse [from the sun]. We had another strong impulse come off the sun this morning and another one last night, and that’s going to arrive in our atmosphere sometime late tomorrow into tomorrow night.”

Unfortunately, those trying to see the lights from, say, Ocean Beach or other coastal parts of the city may be “out of luck.”

San Francisco’s notoriously foggy weather and seasonal layer of coastal clouds—also known as coastal stratus or more popularly known as May Gray or June Gloom—may get in the way of seeing the spectacular natural phenomena, National Weather Service meteorologist Alexis Clouser said.   

“The SF Peninsula, it's pretty wishy-washy,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think you have to go more into the East Bay to get a better chance of seeing the auroras. … If you're towards Ocean Beach, I think you're gonna be out of luck with that.” 

That said, Clouser noted that adventurous San Franciscans may try Mount Diablo, Pleasanton or Livermore for clearer, darker skies away from San Francisco’s clouds and city lights. 

“Any light pollution that you get from city lights or anything related to that is going to make seeing them much more difficult,” Clouser said. “Ideally, you'd want to be in a very, very dark location. Generally, more rural areas where you're gonna have less light pollution, those are gonna be your best chances.” 

Still, some local meteorologists, like ABC7’s Lisa Argen, say that observers may have to travel as far as the “Sacramento Valley to see anything most likely.”  

“The fog will be back tonight,” she said. “There was a dense fog advisory this morning from SF south. That advisory probably be back tonight and could expand northward.”  

However, if you do manage to find a spot dark and clear enough to see the night sky, Bettwy recommends photographing the northern lights with your phone and going out to see the lights in the middle of the night when the skies are darkest.  

“A lot of cellphones, especially iPhones, can pick up things that we cannot see,” he said. “So you'll take a picture, you won't actually see anything, but then when you look at the picture, you'll actually see the aurora in it.”