Finding Aurora Borealis

Ron Niebrugge Alaska, Chugach, How to, Photos, Travel 26 Comments

Northern Ligths

I thought I would share some tips for photographing the aurora borealis, also known as northern lights.  The hardest part of photographing the auroras is finding them – so today I thought I would write about finding them, tomorrow actually photographing them. 

Generally speaking, the further north, the better your chances of seeing the aurora.  The best time of year tends to be close to the equinox (March and late September – October).  This time of year also offers enough darkness in the northern regions without the temperature extremes you often find in winter.  Summers in the north don’t offer enough darkness to see the aurora.  Midnight local times also seems to be the best time for viewing, but a big solar storm can hit pretty much any time of day or year, so you always want to be ready.  A place like Fairbanks, Alaska can be a great spot if you are serious about seeing the aurora, I believe they see them something like 70% of the time.  I know where I grew up in Glennallen they were a regular occurrence.  Seeing them in Seward is much tougher, we are a little too far south and west of the typical aurora oval, not to mention we often have cloudy weather.  When the conditions are right, you can see them in the lower 48 even as far south as Arizona.

Aurora borealis activity is usually proceeded by some type of solar event.  Because of this, the chance of an aurora display can often be predicted a few days in advance.  There are two sites I usually check for aurora forecasts.  The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks offers hourly, daily and monthly forecasts.  Spaceweather.com also provides forecasts, photos and other information on auroras, along with interesting information about other space phenomena. 

Now that you know that auroras are in the forecast, where and when will you actually see them?  Predicting the aurora borealis seems a little like predicting weather, there are some good indicators, but nothing is perfect.  One of the most important things to watch for is the Kp-index.  I won’t get into a lot of details into what this number represents (because I don’t really know) but what I do know is that the higher the number the better.  Where I live just north of Latitude 60, I typically need to see a Kp of 5 or higher.  In the lower 48, you may need 6, 7 or higher for success.  By the way last Thursday hit 8.

There are a number of websites that provide Kp readings, but since most people live in places where auroras aren’t a regular occurrence, monitoring aurora activity isn’t usually a priority.  There is a great solution; a free subscription to the Auroral Detection and Early Warning System (ADEC).  This free service will send you an alert (via email, pager or mobile phone) whenever the Kp exceeds a predetermined level.  In the subscription form, there is a place where you can enter your latitude and longitude to help determine what Kp level you need to see aurora in your area.  Then when the Kp reaches your predetermined level, you get an email – this is very handy.

If you want to get a little more advanced, there are a couple of other figures I watch.  I try to keep an eye on the solar wind speed and the direction of the magnetic field.  The wind usually picks up during a solar storm, and figures over 500 km s-1 are usually an important indicator.  Last Thursday the wind pegged the top of the scale at 1,000 – that is fairly unusual, but certainly an indicator of something special. 

The other important statistic is the direction of the magnetic field.  This must be pointing southward.  It seems like no matter how much wind there is, if the magnetic field isn’t pointing south, there won’t be much aurora activity.

So where do you get these readings?  The Space Environment Center has an easy to read display that looks like a dashboard, this can be monitored with a quick glance.  When the weather is clear in Seward and the aurora forecast is favorable, I drop by this site to check on the current weather regularly.  Spaceweather.com also provides wind speed and magnetic field direction in the left hand column of their homepage.

When all indicators are looking good, I monitor this page at the STD Aurora Monitor as it gives me real-time views from space of the current Aurora activity along with actual sightings by followers.  When these images are lighting up, it is time to hurry outside if I’m not there already!  Tomorrow – how to photograph the aurora.

Aurora Borealis

Comments 26

  1. LaVieve R.

    I saw aurora borealis once in Santaquin, UT. I didn’t know it was possible in UT. It was amazing!!

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  3. Kim

    I am doing a powerpoint project of college class microsorf office, IT1010,
    THank you for making this a possible project. I am using the informatin you gave on the northern lights, and i am hoping to get a chance to personally see them. Thanks for making this project possible, informative and interesting.

    Thanks again
    Kim

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  6. Ahmed

    Ron:
    Thanks for sharing the useful information you have, about where best to view the AB and how best to photograph it.
    I consider viewing the Aurora to be a once in a life time thing and have it on my plan list.
    I live in Colorado. Seeing it here might be once in a 100-year kind of thing, so I’ve been studying the forecasting by the Geophysical Institute, which shows the band of Aurora activity going over the Fairbanks area in Alaska and over the Gillam to Churchill area in Manitoba. I have found that Canada’s ViaRail runs a train every Tues, Thursday and Sunday from Winnipeg, which gets to Churchill in about a day and a half. The current RT cost for an economy fare from Winnipeg is about 330 CAD. So getting to this area may be a bit more economical than flying into Anchorage and driving or taking the train to Fairbanks and then dealing with the more expensive accommodations there.
    Churchill is also known for its polar bears which could provide an added return.
    However, I am not able to find good information about lodging at Gillam, which appears to be right at the center of the band. Churchill has a handful of places and travelers have reported good experience with the Lazy Bear Lodge there.
    Could you please give your thoughts about the suitability of Gillam/Churchill area vs Fairbanks, from viewing pov, and if you can add some lodging and travel information for these areas from your personal experience?

    Thanks again for your good work.

    Best Regards,

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    Ron

    Hi Ahmend,

    I have been all over Western Canada, but no where near Gillam / Churchill. But, you can fly from Denver to Fairbanks via Alaska Airlines. Depending on the time of year, I would think that this cost would at least be comparable with flying from Denver to Winnipeg, but again, I’m not really of any help here.

    Good luck!

    Ron

  8. rachel

    hey…this is lik REALLY cool i hope i get 2 c 1 soon! im traveling 2 alaska so ill keep watch! 🙂

  9. christine

    We saw them in Utah too! It has been about 14 years! Up in Nordic Valley (near Snowbasin) in Northern Utah….I had no idea we could see them. I had to awaken my husband, i thought the aliens were coming! Right out of war of the worlds! A must see bucket list item for all!

  10. darla

    I remember seeing what someone told me was northern lights when I was a child.
    We lived in north central Texas at the time. After reading this it sounds impossible.
    What could it have been??? I’ve told this story all my life. Or was it in another life?
    :+) :+( :+0

  11. Louise

    Thank you so much for this website. I saw the northern lights many years ago in Alaska but didn’t know they are sometimes visible in Oregon. Again, thank you for all the info

  12. Handsome

    Witnessed them on a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. They were north of Baker, and were truly an amazing experience. Probably some 20 to 25 years ago.

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    Ron

    There was supposed to be a great show recently, but too many clouds here – I agree, they really are amazing to see!

  14. Kathleen

    I read that sunspot activity will be at the peak of the 11-year cycle in 2011-2012 so they’ll be good years for auroras and also be seen further south. Here’s hoping.

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  16. Garland Thompson

    I saw this back in 2010! We were just getting out of some kind of seminar, and I saw a huge ray of golden light across Cedar City Utah. I thought that I was seeing things at first, but when I looked at it long enough, I saw something that looked like a bird weaving in an out of the curtain. I don think that anyone else saw it, but the beam was absolutely amazing!

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  18. Juan P González

    Hi there,

    Since I was a kid I always wanted to see the Northern Lights, but being from Central America my chances were zero. I moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada and since my arrival I started looking for different ways to “predict” the Aurora Borealis. Adding to the list of sites given by Ron, I found these other two sites with real-time information, valid mostly for Canada:
    – Canadian Space Science Data Portal – Real-Time Auroral Oval: https://cssdp.ca/ssdp/app/static/related_projects/rt_oval.html
    – Aurora Watch by University of Alberta – http://corona-gw.phys.ualberta.ca/AuroraWatch/

    Using these sites was so useful to be able to see the very first northern lights in my life… it’s just impressive, another show of mother nature!

    Thanks for the information Ron!

    JP

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  20. Claire

    I’m new to Seward and wondering where to drive to on good aurora nights. Any recommendations on good parking spots?

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    Ron Niebrugge

    Claire – welcome to Seward! I like the pullout just past the ski area at Mile 12 – when it is open. Exit Glacier Road can be good, as across the bay. The best viewing is further out the road – Turngain Pass, Portage Valley.

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