The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is one of the most fascinating wonders of the night sky. Captivating humans since the beginning of time, the aurora is a magical sight and an elusive phenomenon. Here are some things you need to know to help you see this natural wonder.
1. Knowing what the Northern Lights are:
Aurora is our Earth’s reaction to energy released by the sun. Our atmosphere captures the energy which is pulled toward the magnetic poles. Causing the aurora australis/southern lights in the Southern Hemisphere and the aurora borealis/northern lights in the Northern Hemisphere. As the atmosphere reacts to this energy, light is created in a variety of colours depending on the elements reacting.
Energy released from the sun takes about 3 days to arrive at earth. However, determining if it will impact earth is still questionable. There are a lot of factors that come into play for the northern lights to actually occur. The energy needs to be captured by earth’s atmosphere, on the dark side of the earth and with clear sky to actually see it. With so many conditions having to align perfectly, seeing the northern lights remains highly unpredictable.
2. The Best Time of Year for Northern Lights:
The aurora is known to be more active near the fall and spring equinoxes. Changes to our magnetic sphere can allow for some spectacular aurora displays! The important thing to know is the northern lights can happen any time of the year. It’s the hours of darkness that are most important.
A common misconception is that there is a season for aurora, however that is because many areas in the far north that enjoy unbelievable aurora during the winter months also enjoy the midnight sun during the summer which inhibits the ability to see the aurora activity. The exciting part is there are places in the world that are far enough north to see the aurora and still get some darkness during the summer, allowing for all year aurora viewing!
I wrote more about Summer aurora here. It’s one of my favourites because of the changing twilight light along with the fact that very few areas in the world enjoy the perfect balance of aurora oval proximity and darkness all year. Watching a summer show, knowing so few people are seeing it, really is special.
While I personally enjoy summer aurora because of my geographic location, winter truly is the best time for viewing. The nights are long during the winter and it increases your chances of aurora activity occurring during darkness. The length of daylight hours only decreases the further north you go, to the prime areas under the aurora oval.
3. Forecasting the Northern Lights:
Most avid aurora chasers will say they check the data everyday, multiple times a day. That’s because aurora, as mentioned earlier is highly unpredictable. The most reliable source of information is the DSCOVR satellite located over 900,000km from earth allowing for a 30 min forecast of incoming solar energy.
Here are two apps I use and monitor daily:
Aurora Alerts – great for beginners, easy to read and incorporates local weather.
SpaceWeatherLive – more detailed information and everything you need to know.
The forecasts generated for a month ahead are based on previous sunspots and on anticipated activity. If there is a reliable cycle of activity occurring this could be used to narrow down the days, but again things can change right up to the minute.
The three day forecasts are a bit more reliable than the month long forecast because it takes into account current data from the sun. Knowing energy from the sun can take about 3 days to arrive, any major activity can produce some promising forecasts. Again, keep in mind this can change due to other factors.
4. Interpreting the Numbers:
When it comes to forecasting for beginners, watching the KP number will give you an idea of expecting activity. The higher the number the better the forecasted show. Again, it is not a very reliable source because it is a 3 hour average educated guess of what will happen.
The current data is most reliable as I mentioned earlier. When watching the data, check out the visual aurora oval showing current conditions. One of the most important factors is the BZ. It needs to be negative to let the northern lights occur. Without going into to much detail, the longer there’s a negative BZ and the higher the negative number, can make a good show turn into an amazing show pretty quick.
5. Watching the Sky Glow
The northern lights can vary from a simple white haze in the sky to the most vibrant green, oranges and pinks you have seen! It’s a very wide range of possible intensities. The way digital cameras work, the sensor picks up green when, to the naked eye, it’s a white haze. This often leads people to be disappointed when they envision the lights always being vibrant and bright because of the photos they see. It’s important to note that yes the lights can get vibrant, most times they aren’t as bright as a camera will make it look. But then there’s times they are to bright it just blows out the image on the camera.. so it just depends on the night.
The lights will often begin as a hazy band but they can start to move and change. With increased activity comes more colour and the ability to distinguish the green and other colours if it really gets going.
Pro Tip: try not to look at lights for around 15 minutes to allow your eyes to really adjust to the dark and help to see the contrast in the lights.
Each show is unique and different. Some last for just a few minutes, others dance all night. It really is all part of the thrill and chase. Never really knowing exactly what you will see, that’s the magic of the northern lights.