Aurora Borealis Viewing Guide
For over 7 months of the year, the skies are dark enough to witness one of earth’s greatest natural phenomenons, the Northern Lights (a.k.a. Aurora Borealis). Even though the Northern Lights can be seen during any dark and clear night in the North, there are some things you should understand when planning to view them. Below we will go through some tips and tricks to becoming a true aurora chaser.
When to See the Lights:
As you might have guessed, the best time to see the Northern Lights come when the nights are long and dark around the winter months. Generally speaking, the Northern Lights season runs from early September-early April. During this period, the very best time to see the aurora falls around each solstice (fall and spring) when solar activity is at its peak.
Where to See the Lights:
The first and most crucial piece to planning your Northern Lights excursion is heading to the right spot. No matter where you pick, I recommend staying at least 4 nights in an auroral zone to give yourself a good chance to see the show. The longer you stay, the more you are going to see! Here are some of the best locations for viewing the lights:
Why: Fairbanks has long been considered the Northern Lights viewing capital of the United States and could easily take that claim regarding the entire world. Sitting within Alaska’s interior, Fairbanks is far enough from any ocean, meaning you get more of a continental climate, which will help keep the clouds away and will leave you with plenty of clear nights. Fairbanks also has a lot of other activities ranging from dog sledding, the World Ice Sculpture Championships, wildlife viewing, and more. If visiting Fairbanks, considering staying somewhere just outside the city (near the UAF campus is good) as then you can enjoy all the amenities the city has to offer and then escape to nearby lookouts at night.
When: You can view the Northern Lights above Fairbanks starting around the last few days of August through the first half of April. The best month is March as it is the driest month, a lot of daytime activities, warmer temperatures than the cold winter months, and the solstice usually has more auroral activity.
Good Alternatives in the region: Denali National Park & Preserve, Barrow, Bettles
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Why: Yellowknife is Canada’s version of Fairbanks. Situated within the heart of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife lies under the auroral band and experiences a continental climate due to the fact that it is far from any ocean. Yellowknife offers a fair range of activities from dog sledding, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and more during the day and the city has a decent range of restaurants, especially when you consider its isolated location. The only downside to Yellowknife is that it can be a bit harder and more expensive to get to than other locations on this list. The only major cities that have flights to Yellowknife are Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa with seasonal flights out of Vancouver.
When: As with Fairbanks, March and early April are the optimal months to visit Yellowknife as it is the driest month and tends to have the most auroral activity. September is a decent alternative as the fall colors should be in full swing, but there can be a fair amount of rain during the fall months.
Good Alternatives in the region: Fort McMurray, Churchill, Whitehorse/Dawson City
Why: This small viking island nation lies directly under the auroral band, which means on a low auroral activity night, the lights should still be visible above. On top of that, Iceland offers many other sights from Reykjavik, hot springs, waterfalls, great landscapes, and more. The biggest downside with Iceland is that it is completely surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, which means cloudless nights can be extremely hard to come by. Iceland has become a much easier country to get to as you can now fly to Reykjavik very cheaply from many North American and European cities.
When: If viewing the Northern Lights is your priority, then you should consider one of the top two locations or their alternatives, which will raise your odds greatly. Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland should be considered a great bonus to your visit. Because of this, visiting Iceland during September and October is recommended where you will get around 12 hours of daylight and the landscape will look wonderful.
Good Alternatives in the region: Greenland (it is pretty much the only place that is close enough to consider!)
Why: Placed within the far north of Norway’s endless fjord country, Tromso is a good sized city that takes the cake when it comes to watching the Northern Lights over spectacular landscapes. The city is relatively easy to get to with daily flights from Oslo and a few other European cities. As with Iceland, the biggest downside is due to Tromso’s location near the water, which means clear nights can be hard to come by. If you are already in Europe or looking to explore more of Norway, then this can be a great choice.
When: The driest month to see the Northern Lights in Tromso is March. Since Tromso is so far north, the months of December and January see very little light, so there is not much to do unless you are only aurora hunting. Fall can be a good time with the fjords showing off their peak autumn foliage.
Good Alternatives: Lapland in northern Sweden, northern Finland, Lofoten Islands
Understanding the Aurora:
To maximize your chances of seeing the aurora, you first have to understand how it works. In short, the northern lights occur when charged particles emitted from the sun during a solar flare penetrate the earth's magnetic shield and collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere. These collisions result in countless little bursts of light, called photons, which make up the aurora. These particles are penetrating our surface 24/7, even during summer when the aurora is invisible due to the lack of any dark skies. However, you need a moderate to large enough solar storm to see an impressive auroral show. If very few particles get hurled towards earth, then either the aurora will not appear, or it will be weak and minimal.
So based on the last paragraph, we determined the aurora is dependent on two things: the sun releasing energy and dark/clear skies overhead. You will need both of these parts if you are to see the aurora.
We can measure auroral acitivty many different ways, but most of us use what is called Kp-index. This is a tool used to measure geomagnetic storms and you’ll find this will be your best friend when watching short-term forecasts. The Kp-index is measured on a range from 0-9, with 0 being no geomagnetic activity (fairly rare) and 9 being an extremely large solar storm (can be seen as far south as Mexico during these events, meaning it is also VERY rare). Most aurora prediction apps and websites will show auroral activity measured using the Kp-index. To have a good viewing you generally need the Kp-index to fall around 3, which is considered moderate. A value of 4 & 5 would be considered active. You can see the aurora around a 2, but you would need to be under the auroral band and even still, activity would be minimal. The Kp-indexes fluctuate rapidly throughout a day and even though you will see Kp forecasts ranging from 3 days to over a few weeks, they can only be accurately predicted within 1 hour.
Even though it is not a flawless system, the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC, affiliated with NOAA) will predict auroral activity as far as 28 days out! This is due to sunspots on our sun that reliably produce coronal mass ejections (CME’s) that create auroras and also due to the fact that the sun rotates every 28 days. These forecasts are great if you can plan your trip on short notice or have a lot of flexibility, but are not perfectly accurate. Even with a great forecast, the aurora can turn out to be a dud and vise versa with spectacular displays occurring on lights where the predictions said it would be flat.
The one last thing to consider is what we call the solar cycle. The solar cycle or solar magnetic activity cycle is the nearly periodic 11-year change in the Sun's activity (including changes in the levels of solar radiation and ejection of solar material) and appearance. We are currently entering the solar minimum, which should happen sometime around 2019. This doesn’t mean you can’t see the aurora, it just means there are not as many nights that have a lot of solar activity. While it is better to go during the solar maximum, that won’t happen for at least another 5-6 years, so unless you can wait that long, give it a go now! You can always go back and try again if you strike out!
For more accurate and short-term forecasts (as well as long-term forecasts), check these pages: