Skygazers in Minnesota could be in for a treat Thursday if everything in the atmosphere aligns to create a visible northern lights display. But just how big, bright and widespread the event will be is unclear.

"There are a lot of variables in play," said Mark Job, an avid aurora borealis chaser with the Minnesota Astronomical Society. "If an active sun spot erupts, we could be in for a great show."

But some are questioning whether we will see anything at all.

A Duluth writer and astronomy buff says don't get too excited about the forecast yet, just in case. "The aurora is like trying to hold onto a fish. Really slippery," said "Astro" Bob King, who writes a column about astronomy for the Duluth News Tribune.

"It can be maddening but that's how easily a forecast can change. I've been burned plenty in the past by reporting an aurora date based on the three-day" forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,, King said.

National news outlets over the weekend reported that Americans in 17 states are expected to be able to see the celestial light show. The phenomenon — most often seen in Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia — occurs when solar winds collide with the Earth's magnetic field, causing atoms in the upper atmosphere to glow green and gray.

King said he thinks news outlets should have waited before making their predictions of seeing the northern lights.

The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks uses a 9-point scale to forecast when and where auroral displays will be visible. For Thursday, the institute has put cities including Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Toronto and Bay City, Mich., at a 6, meaning viewing odds are good. Cities farther south, including Lincoln, Neb., Indianapolis and Annapolis, Md., could get a good view low on the horizon, the institute said.

"Scientists can predict when and where there will be aurora," the institute said, "but with less confidence than they can predict the regular weather."

Another aurora tracking website,, took a more tempered approach to Thursday's event.

"We are not expecting widespread aurora sightings in the U.S. this week, but the pertinent space weather that could cause auroral enhancements late this week would occur today and tomorrow on the sun, taking several days to get to us. We'll keep you updated if anything changes," it said in a tweet.

What happens Thursday will depend on where the solar winds are aimed at Earth, Job said.

"There definitely is going to be an aurora Thursday," said Job, who has been with the Astronomical Society for 12 years. "If they are at the equator, we could have a good blast. But if they are higher or lower, they could shoot over the top of us or below us. There are many aspects and physics involved in that."

Should everything come together, skies clear of clouds and smoke from Canadian wildfires would also factor into the chance for taking in the spiking waves of light. The lights will hit their prime from about 11 p.m. until the moon rises just after 1 a.m., Job said.

In the end the chances of seeing the light show is often unpredictable, King noted.

"Wouldn't it be ironic if after all the forecasting the aurora did exactly what it wanted and either didn't appear at all or totally blew up the sky on July 12 or 13," he said. "If so, that would be in character!"

For those willing to gamble the lights will show up, here's some advice on catching the northern lights:

Dark spots away from city lights and facing north will be the best viewing sites, Job said. Locally, open land in the far northern suburbs of Anoka, Blaine and East Bethel can provide good viewing without having to make a long road trip.

Another trick: Find a boat landing on the south side of a lake, as trees will not block the horizon.

Even in urban neighborhoods, viewing is possible, Job said. "Stand between buildings to eliminate light shining in your eyes," he said.

Other musts: bug spray and lots of patience.

Thursday's northern lights could be some of the best in a long time, Job said. But nothing is certain.

"Nature is unpredictable," he said. "It's a lot like a cat: You never know what you are going to get."