What I’ve learned about seeing the Aurora Borealis

Andy and have gone aurora chasing to Iceland and twice to Alaska. Our first two visits to see the aurora had limited success. First, we went to Iceland where we saw the aurora low on the horizon, but without color. To the naked eye, it appeared white and gray, but the camera caught the green color. .

For our first trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, we encountered quite a bit of cloudy weather, which prevented aurora view. One night, we took a tour that drove us down about an hour or two away to try to get clearer skies. It did work and we did see the aurora — even overhead, but no color.

The skies were starting to clear on our final day of the first trip to Alaska. We did see the aurora in color from the tarmac of our departing flight. After take off, we got to see an amazing, colorful, dancing aurora from the tiny, round window of an airplane door. While we were glad to see what we did, it only whet our appetite for more.

I’ve learned a lot about aurora viewing. I want to share the information that I’ve learned in order to help friends and family.

Let me first say, that the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute (UAGI) website has a ton of useful information to help aurora chasers. Even though it appears to be focused on Alaska, it’s really filled with helpful information for the northern hemisphere. A lot of the information I’ve learned about the aurora is from that page.

What time of year to go look for the aurora?

Skies need to be dark enough for the aurora to be visible. That means that the aurora is not visible in summer months. According to UAGI, the skies are dark enough from August 21st to April 21st. Note that less light equals more aurora viewing potential.

Activity tends to peak around the fall and spring equinox, i.e., September 21st and March 21st. Thankfully, these aren’t the most frigid times of year in northern climes to venture out at night for aurora viewing. We’ve heard from numerous sources that March tends to offer the best auroras.

The phase of the moon impacts aurora visibility, too. It’s ideal to go aurora chasing during the new moon, which is also known as the dark of the moon. Basically, it’s when the moon does not rise overnight. If you can’t arrange your trip for a time during the new moon, or with limited moon visibility at night, it’s not disastrous. It’s just that the moonlight will lessen the intensity of the aurora colors and visibility. Here’s a link to a site that can help you find the moon phase.

When will the aurora be active?

Every Monday, a 27-day outlook is issued. I look at the KP Index column. The higher the KP, the more active the aurora is predicted to be. That may not be a scientific description, but it’s the best way for me to describe it as active.

For more immediate aurora forecasts, see this link. Also, from this page operated by NOAA, check out “The Aurora”image that shows the probability of visible aurora with the aurora band indicated along with an indication of where it’s dark and light.

Experts say that from 10pm to 2am is the aurora viewing sweet-spot. When the sky is dark, we’ve seen the aurora as early as 6 or 7pm in the evening.

Where to go to look for the aurora

You’ve gotta go north! For overhead aurora viewing, you’ve got to go to places like:

  • Fairbanks, Alaska
  • Iceland
  • Dawson City, Yellowknife, Gillam Canada
  • Tromso, Norway
  • Lapland region of Finland

Any further south than those places and you’ll generally only see the aurora on the northern horizon.

If you do go to one of the destinations listed above, for best viewing, you’ll need to get away from city lights.

Weather is such an important factor!

You can’t see the aurora if the skies are clouded over. For our trip to Fairbanks in October, 2018, the weather forecast looked good about ten days out. As the time for our trip drew near, the forecast kept looking worse and worse and, yeah, it was cloudy almost every night. What we learned from that experience is that we will only book a trip when the weather looks mostly clear within a 5-day window.

Other resources

  • Aurora webcam outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. This webcam has a wide angle lens. It automatically updates in 10 to 20-second increments.
  • Aurora webcam looking northeast outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.
  • Additional advice for Fairbanks aurora viewing can be found here.

UPDATE: Our third try to see the northern lights was a winner! We went to Fairbanks again at the end of February 2019. We saw the aurora in full color dancing across the sky!

Here’s a time lapse video from our second trip to Alaska.

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