Northern Lights and Aurora Borealis FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

Here you can find our most popular aurora borealis and photography questions. Click the questions below to find the answers.

1. What are the best years to see the northern lights?

Solar Cycle graph

The last peak of the Solar Cycle was 2014 and the next predicted peak is 2025, but I always say the best year is the year that we’re in. That could not be more true than right now because we are currently on a strong upswing in the Solar Cycle and sunspot activity is generating some wild 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. Whatever the year or weather prediction, we say just go for it! 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.

2. When are the best months to see the northern lights?

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.

Average Number of Geomagnetically Disturbed Day 1932-2007
Source: David Hathaway, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

3. What time is best to see the Northern Lights?

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.

4. What causes the northern lights?

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.

5. What causes the different northern lights colors?

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: What Are the Northern Lights.

6. Where do the northern lights occur?

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.

7. Where in Alaska can I see the northern lights?

In Alaska, the best place to see the aurora borealis is around Fairbanks.

8. Where in Fairbanks can I see the northern lights?

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 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.

9. Where in Anchorage can I see the northern lihgts?

The northern lights are less common at the Anchorage latitude compared to further north like around Fairbanks. To get the best angle on the northern sky around Anchorage try:

  • Pt. Woronzof & Earthquake Park (west end of Northern Lights Boulevard)
  • Anchorage Hillside (Glen Alps Trailhead, Flattop)
If traveling north of Anchorage some viewpoints include:
  • Skyline Drive, Eagle River
  • 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

10. Can we predict the northern lights?

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 Northern Lights Forecast.

11. Does it have to be cold to see the northern lights?

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!

12. How long do the northern lights last?

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!

13. What is “Real Time” solar activity?

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.

14. What is a geomagnetic storm?

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.

15. What is the Kp Index?

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!

16. What are some good northern lihgts internet links?

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.

17. Is northern lights viewing best with a moon or no moon?

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.

18. How to photograph the northern lights?

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 ƒ2.8) 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.

19. What kind of photo gear do you use to capture the northern lights?

Here is a list of the equipment I use:

Camera Bodies

  • Nikon D850 (FX-full frame for still images)

Lens

  • Sigma 14mm/f1.8 Art lens
  • Sigma 20mm/f1.4 Art lens
  • Sigma 35mm/f1.4 Art lens
  • Nikon 16mm/f2.8 fish-eye lens
  • Nikon 24mm/f1.4 lens
  • Nikon 28mm/f1.4 lens
  • Nikon 17-35mm/2.8 wide-angle zoom lens
  • Nikon 28-300mm/f3.5 VR lens (for daytime use)
  • Tamron 150-600mm/f4.5-5.6 telephoto zoom lens


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