Aurora Borealis FAQs
Here you can find our most popular aurora borealis and photography questions. Click the questions below to find the answers.
We are presently in the "peak phase" of the solar cycle. This means that all the years from now through 2015 hold great potential for aurora activity. Predicting exactly which year is going to be the best is nearly impossible because the sun is so incredibly dynamic (and that's what drives the auroras). For those planning their own aurora hunt we advise going whenever it's convenient for you to spend the most amount of time as possible with your eyes on the sky. Whether it's 2013, 2014 or 2015, we say "Just go for it" and there's no time like the present!
This graph shows that my best aurora experiences are spread out across the peak phases of the solar cycle. Predicting the exact month, week and night is the hard part and involves a lot of luck and just being there.
Statistically, springtime (March/April) and autumn (September/October) contain the most "geomagnetically disturbed days" which means more aurora activity...although you're bound to see the lights in October, November, December, January and February if you spend enough time looking up.
In Alaska, it's dark enough to see the northern lights from about August-through-April. During May, June & July it's just too bright in to see them in the "Land of the Midnight Sun."
Source: David Hathaway, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Midnight-to-2am is the best time to see the northern lights but they may occur anytime from sunset to sunrise. The later you can stay awake the better chance of getting to witness the grandeur of the northern lights. If you have clear earth weather and active space weather we highly suggest staying at your post until dawn.
View our Aurora Hunting Tips.
"Goddess of Dawn" was photographed at the crack of dawn on a sub-zero late January morning from the Denali Viewpoint South. I was about ready to go to bed when at 7:30 am the skies turned to red.
The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, form when charged particles emitted from the sun (solar wind) get caught up in the earth's magnetic field and collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere. These collisions release little photons of light 50-300 miles high in our ionosphere. The rays that you see are our magnetic field getting illuminated by the incoming energy. It's like throwing dye in the sky.
The northern lights come in a variety of colors that are dependent on different gases getting excited/ionized by incoming charged particles. When oxygen atoms and molecules get bombarded they release green and red photons. When nitrogen molecules get struck they release the beautiful and rare purple light.
More here: How the Aurora Borealis Form
The best place to see the northern lights is in the far north like Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia.
In the southern hemisphere they have the Aurora Australis, the southern lights, which are best viewed from Antarctica.
If you are do-it-yourself adventurer, rent a 4-wheel drive SUV, get a north-facing hotel room (Pike's Lodge is convenient) and then search out Ester Dome and Murphy Dome. Chena Hot Springs is located 60 miles outside of Fairbanks and caters to the aurora viewer (wake-up calls, tours, hot springs). If you want to head even farther into the bush, Bettles Lodge http://www.bettleslodge.com/ is located right under the aurora oval, the most common place to see the auroras but you must fly in to this location. If you keep heading north along the Dalton Highway (Haul Road) you run into the Brooks Range with potential base camps in Coldfoot or Wiseman.
The northern lights are less common at the Anchorage latitude than they are further north like in Fairbanks. But if you are in Anchorage do not despair, because if the light show makes it here it's usually very strong and active. Head up the Anchorage hillside to the Flattop overlook or Glenn Alps. If you want to get away from the city lights drive north on the Glenn Highway, take the Hiland Road exit at Eagle River and head up Hiland Road. Depending on how far you want to travel the further you head north the better. Break out the map and keep these locations in mind:
- Old Glenn Highway and Knik River Road
- Hatcher Pass – both the Palmer side and the Willow side
- Talkeetna is wonderful
- Denali Viewpoint South – MP 134 on the Parks Hwy
To predict the northern lights it helps tremendously to get a pulse on the different cyclic patterns that auroras have a tendency to follow. Lucky for us, humans have made great advances in aurora science in just the last few decades and there are several prediction tools at our disposal.
More on Predicting the Aurora Borealis
No! It is a myth that the northern lights happen only when it's cold. They happen year-round and since there is more darkness to see them in the winter people associate the cold winter with the auroras. I've seen them in August while wearing a T-shirt and shorts!
Anywhere from 10 minutes to all night long, depending on the magnitude of the incoming solar wind. "Coronal holes" consistently produce nice auroras but big solar flares and CMEs-coronal mass ejections are responsible for global-wide aurora displays…the BIG shows!
|Northern lights dancing over Denali (Mt. McKinley) around midnight on a full moon night. Taken near MP 134 on the Parks Highway in March.|
Real time is right now, the present, and many organizations are monitoring the sun in real time and on the lookout for solar activity. When there's a big solar flare, also known as a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) an alert is posted because when that energy sweeps by the earth anywhere from 1-to-3 days later satellites can be damaged, cell phone coverage can be messed up and on rare occasions power grids can fail leaving people without electricity. Not good if it's deep winter.
Geo is earth – "geomagnetic" is the earth's magnetic field. When a gust of solar wind buffets the earth's magnetic shield and some of that energy comes streaming down our magnetic poles this is the science that creates the magic of the northern lights and is known as a "geomagnetic storm." We have magnetometers and other types of instruments that record this incoming energy in real time and give us an instant heads-up that something could be happening in the skies overhead.
Way back in 1998 a massive geomagnetic storm caused the most incredible aurora displays that lasted for 2-1/2 nights solid! This photo, titled "The Phoenix" is looking straight up into the aurora. The radiating pattern is known as the "corona effect."
The Kp Index is a 1-to-9 scale that quantifies disturbances in the earth's magnetic field. If you hear the Kp is over 4 or 5 it's good to have your eyes on the sky because we are probably in the middle of a geomagnetic storm, which means the northern lights could be out!
The Internet has a lot of cool links that provide an aurora hunter with an alert system (I still prefer the old-school method of just camping out under the stars… but if I I'm in cell phone range it's hard not to take a peek at the iPhone!). NASA and NOAA provide a lot of information. SpaceWeather.com is a great starting point.
View our Aurora Borealis Links.
Where the Brooks Range meets the North Slope I witnessed this "Crescendo" moment under March moonlit skies. No cell phone service up there. It helps to be in a nocturnal schedule….sleep all day and it's much easier to stay awake all night.
I personally like moonlight because it lights up the foreground and makes the sky a deep blue instead of pitch black like with no moon. I watch the lunar phase very carefully.
View our Moon Phases page.
Total lunar eclipse from December 20, 2010 photographed from Anchorage just before the clouds rolled in.
For starters set the camera on a tripod, crank the ISO up to 800 or 1600, set the f-stop wide open (lowest number like f2.8) and start bracketing the exposure times. Try 5 seconds, 10 seconds and 20 seconds. If the picture is still black and underexposed then try 30 seconds and keep raising the ISO until something shows up on your LCD monitor.
View our Photographing the Aurora Borealis page.
Here is a list of the equipment I use:
- Nikon D700 body (FX-full frame)
- Nikon D300 body (DX-1.5x factor)
- Nikon FM (fully manual film camera-no batteries needed!)
- Nikon 14mm/f2.8 rectilinear lens
- Nikon 16mm/f2.8 fish-eye lens
- Nikon 17-35mm wide-angle zoom lens
- Sigma 20mm/f1.8 lens
- Nikon 28mm/f1.4 lens (a "fast" lens)
- Nikon 35mm/f1.4 lens
- Nikon 50mm/f1.4 lens
- Nikon 28-300mm/f3.5 VR lens (for daytime use only)
- Nikon 80-400mm/f4.5-5.6 telephoto zoom lens
- Sigma 300-800mm/f5.6 monster telephoto lens (for shootin' the moon)
- Canon XH-A1 video camera
Happy Aurora Hunting,