There is nothing more beautiful and magical than the Aurora Borealis. As if something from a fairy tale, the idea of looking into the midnight sky and being greeted with the sight of vivid colors swirling around the atmosphere almost seems too good to be true, but it is possible! Here you will learn what exactly these elusive lights are, where you can find them, and get the tools you need to search for them on your own.
In order to understand how to seek out these elusive lights, there are a couple of things that we have to explain. Let’s start by answering the most important question, what are the Northern Lights? The answer to this question might be a bit more complicated than you think, but it is important to understand if you want to go hunting for the aurora yourself.
The Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis is the name for the phenomenon of lights that shine in the atmosphere at the north and south poles.
More specifically, the light from the aurora comes from electrically charged particles from the sun colliding into the elements of the earth's atmosphere. The more they collide, the more energy they create, and they release that energy by emitting light.
The reason why the aurora only occurs at the north and south magnetic poles is because the electrons from the sun travel along magnetic field lines that concentrate in those poles.
Because the aurora is a solar event it is a rare weather phenomenon. But, don’t let that intimidate you. Just like the weather, the aurora can be forecasted using scientific data making it easy to see when there is a higher chance of a bright and vivid aurora. We suggest taking a look at the Geological Institute of Alaska’s forecast here: https://www.gi.alaska.edu/monitors/aurora-forecast
The first thing to know about reading the aurora forecast is that the daily measurements are on a KP Index which is on a scale from 0-9; 0 being no activity and 9 being the most activity possible. The higher the KP Index rating for that day, means the higher chance of seeing a vivid aurora!
When looking at the Geological Institute of Alaska’s aurora forecast you may notice that there are 3 different forecast timelines, 1 hour, 3 day, and 27 day forecasts. This is because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center’s Forecast Model is updated every 30 minutes. The hourly forecast is the most accurate, however, it’s only helpful if you are already in a spot where you can see the northern lights.
The 3-day forecast is the second most accurate as it takes roughly 3 days for the particles from the sun to travel to the surface of the earth.
However, for travel purposes, the most helpful is the 27-day forecast. It takes 27 days for the sun to make a complete rotation. Because of this, if there is a high amount of activity on one day it is likely to reoccur once the sun has rotated to the same position in 27 days. This is called Carrington Rotation!
In the northern hemisphere, most auroral activity has been shown to consistently appear in an oval shape over the top of the earth. This band called the “green ribbon” covers many regions from Alaska, Greenland, to Norway! Those located in this oval are able to see the aurora consistently at a KP rating of 2 when the conditions are right. When the KP rating goes up, the aurora can be seen at a further distance.
If the sky is cloudy, snowy, or rainy, you will not get a clear view of the aurora in the atmosphere. The perfect night would be clear of clouds, a nice dark sky, and minimal noise and light pollution. The moon also plays a large role in the visibility of the aurora. Due to the light it reflects, it can overpower the aurora. If you are looking for the perfect nights for northern lights viewing, it is best to catch the moon while it is in the new moon phase when it is completely dark.
Now that you are familiar with the basics of what the aurora is and the tools to forecast them, let’s go more into detail about how you can see them yourself.
The keys to experiencing the best aurora possible are time, location, and weather. Late February to April are the best times to visit with a winning combination of clear weather and high auroral activity. The aurora is best viewed at night, from about 9:00 pm to 3:00 am. If you aren’t a night owl, make sure you prepare accordingly for some late nights!
Choosing a location to see the aurora depends on you. Some of the most popular places to visit are Alaska, Iceland, and Norway. In Alaska, the further north you are, the more of a chance you have of seeing a brighter aurora. Fairbanks, Alaska has many excursions and tours dedicated just to chasing the northern lights in comfort. Light pollution from city lights also fills the skies at night, which is all the more reason to go with a tour guide. Your guide will know the darkest locations with the most expansive views of the night sky.
Don’t forget to prepare for your aurora hunt! You’ll be outside looking at the sky during the coldest hours of the Alaskan night, so dress accordingly in insulated shoes, socks, blankets, jackets, and gloves. Warm drinks like coffee, hot chocolate, or tea will be a nice addition to the cold night keeping you and your hands warm.
The tricky thing with trying to see the northern lights is that there are so many variables that we can’t control that can get in the way of enjoying them. When planning your trip make sure you keep realistic expectations as it is possible unexpected weather can cover the sky or the lights just aren’t showing the night you are looking.
Being realistic about your expectations is integral to your enjoyment of your trip. Make sure you give yourself 3-5 days to spend as a minimum to ensure you get the most out of your time. Seeing the northern lights is an amazing experience anyone would be lucky to see and with enough planning, it's more than possible to make happen.