Northern Lights

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Northern Lights in Alaska

For those who don’t know, the northern lights (or Aurora Borealis) are in fact strands of lights in alternating colors that appears from time to time in the sky of the northern regions. But that’s a fairly dry definition of what is one of the most impressive experiences in Alaska. It won’t be too much to say that a really good display of northern lights is more than just an incredible natural phenomenon, it’s a philosophical, almost religious experience (and believe us, there’s not a spiritual bone in our bodies).

Many people come to Alaska in the hope of seeing these mysterious lights, but how and where to see them is a different story.

The scientific explanation

In physical terms, this phenomenon takes place when solar energy from the Sun is drawn to Earth’s poles and causes gas reactions in the atmosphere. Each gas creates a different color, and together they create “curtains” of light traveling through the sky. The intensity of the display depends on the intensity of the Sun’s radiation, and the most intense displays occur about three or four days after solar storms on the Sun (no idea what those are , but they sound hot).

When is the best time to watch the northern lights?

As the northern lights depend on the Sun and not the Earth, it can occur at any given time – day or night, summer or winter. However, the lights can only be seen in the dark, and only when the sky is clear of clouds. In most parts of Alaska there’s no real darkness between May and July, so don’t expect to see the lights during that period. As of mid-August you can start searching the skies, and chances increase as darkness hours lengthen.

The best season for viewing the northern lights is spring (around March), when there are still enough hours of darkness, the temperatures aren’t too low and there’s a good chance of a clear night. Sadly, tourist season starts only two months later.

Where is the best place to watch the northern lights?

The solar energy is drawn to Earth’s magnetic poles, not the geographic ones. The North Magnetic Pole is somewhere in North Canada, so the northern lights tend to appear in the northern areas of Alaska and Canada. This is why the area around Fairbanks is considered one of the best places for northern-lights viewing. Not far from Fairbanks there are some hot springs, the most well known is Chena Hot Springs. If you’re there in September and the sky is clear, you have a pretty good chance of catching the show.

By the way, the Japanese believe that a child conceived under the northern lights will be blessed with good fortune. We can’t guarantee you’ll see the northern lights if you’re around in September, but you’re very likely to meet many Japanese couples on their honeymoon.

In the more southern parts of Alaska you usually see weaker displays or low displays over the horizon, though there are always exceptions.

Research and forecast

Unsurprisingly, Fairbanks’ university has one of the world’s leading institutes for northern lights research. The lights can damage satellites and other communication means, so the research is massively funded. In the beginning of each year the institute produces a long-term forecast based on times in which active areas of the Sun will face Earth, and a short-term forecast containing additional data that ordinary folks have a hard time understanding (solar wind, particle density and so on).

Via the link below you can see the forecast for the next few days- However, do no forget that it’s not enough for northern lights to be active. You also need clear skies to see them.

UAF Geophysical Institute – northern-lights activity forecast by the Fairbanks University Geophysical Institute.

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