How to See the Northern Lights

One of the many perks about living pretty far north is that it’s relatively easy to see the northern lights. The northern location combined with dark nights—especially those looooong winter nights—provide ample opportunity to see the northern lights (aka aurora borealis) if one is inclined to do so.

What are the Northern Lights (Besides Cool)?

The aurora is a natural light display that is the result of “space weather”—natural processes in space that affect the environment on and near Earth. Auroras are caused by electrons in space colliding with the earth’s atmosphere.

The sun is constantly sending a stream of subatomic particles from its surface out into space. Phenomena occurring on the surface of the sun, such as coronal holes and sunspots, can cause greater amounts of these particles.

As these particles speed through space, Earth’s magnetic field pulls them toward, but not completely to, the magnetic poles and they interact with elements in the atmosphere. For this reason, two “auroral bands” are centered roughly over the earth’s magnetic poles where the aurora can be seen. The bands move and grow based on the amount of electrons hitting the atmosphere. Larger storms and substorms in space will expand these bands, allowing the aurora to occur (and be seen) across a much greater portion of the globe.

NorthernLightsG
Northern lights in the Keweenaw (Photo by G)

How to See Them

It isn’t too hard to see the northern lights, but it does take some time to know when you’re best chances are. Here are four things that are needed to see the northern lights (plus a little bit of luck):

1) Active Space Weather

It’s hard to predict auroras with precision, but there are many tools that provide information on the amount of geomagnetic activity the earth is experiencing. These forecasts can be helpful for determining whether an aurora is likely within the next day or so:

image of aurora from NOAA
NOAA’s OVATION Aurora Forecast Model shows the probability of a visible aurora overhead. This means that an aurora might be visible across a greater area than what is shown on the map, but lower in the sky.

2) A Dark Night Sky

It’s easiest to see the aurora when it’s very dark. The lights are most visible when the sun is on the opposite side of the earth, generally in the hours around midnight. Additionally, any local light pollution or even a bright moon can interfere with being able to see the aurora. So go where it’s dark—especially to the north.

3) A Clear Sky to the North

Because the aurora occurs in the upper atmosphere, it’ll be blocked by any weather that we’re having here on Earth. While it feels like it’s cloudy all of the time around here, there are plenty of clear nights. Not sure what the clouds are up to? Check out NOAA’s satellite image of cloud cover.

4) Patience

This might be the hardest part! If the conditions are right, it’s a matter of watching and waiting. When there is aurora activity, the activity will tend to come in waves and there may be periods of low activity followed by more active periods. This means that if others have reported seeing lights during a particular evening, activity could slow and take an hour or two to ramp back up.

Of course, we’re just skimming the surface of the phenomenon, and there are much more technical ways of predicting auroral activity for those who are interested.

Lastly, speaking of technical, it should be no surprise that some scientists at Michigan Technological University have been studying the aurora and making some impressive time lapse videos.

Where have you seen the northern lights?

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