Standing in front of the Northern Lights

Northern Lights – The Science and Helpful Tips

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The Northern Lights have long been something I’ve dreamt about seeing. Maybe because it’s somewhat related to the North Pole, and I love all things Christmas? Maybe because of the magic (yes I know it’s actually science) behind it? While I’m not sure exactly where my admiration for this phenomenon came from, it’s been there for a while which is why I was over the moon when I finally saw them with my own two eyes. It had been a little joke that I was going to cry when I first saw them. However, no joke, I got teary-eyed that first time, and again when we saw them literally dance across the sky.

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So let’s talk a little about the science behind the Aurora Borealis (or Aurora Australis for those heading south) and tips for making your experience even better! Before we start though, just in case you didn’t know this, I am not a scientist! I’m a travel lover who learned what I could about the lights. So, if you’re writing a term paper on the lights, don’t use me as a resource πŸ˜‰

The Science of the Northern Lights

When charged particles are emitted from the sun and enter the Earth’s atmosphere they collide with gas atoms to create the Auroras. The color of the lights is determined by the gas involved and the height in the atmosphere where they collide. Oxygen = green and red coloring. Nitrogen = blue and purple colors. Green is the most common color seen, and blue is the least common. Typically, these are the heights that affect color: If they’re 150 miles above the earth, they tend to be red. If they’re 100 miles above earth then they’re green. When they’re 60 miles above the earth you could see purple, and lower than 60 miles you might see blue.

Chasing the Northern Lights was another one of the many trips I took with my mother! I’m a big advocate for planning Mother Dauther trips!

Since the lights are caused by solar particles, when there is a larger storm, the lights will likely be stronger. That means they could be brighter, more vibrant, and seen at lower latitudes. Typically the best viewing may be between 60-75 degrees latitude. However, with these stronger solar storms, you could possibly see them in the upper parts of the states.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Northern Lights is that what you see in those photos is what your bare eye sees. However, the cameras actually get better images of the lights than you’ll see. I was surprised by how many people had traveled to Borealis Basecamp to see the lights but didn’t know this. The first morning after we got there, many other new guests were talking about how they were surprised by what the lights actually looked like. That it wasn’t what they were expecting. However, that being said, they are still freaking amazing!

Tips to See the Northern Lights

If you’re hoping to see the lights, here are a few things to keep in mind. First, go north and look north! I realize when we’re chasing something called the Northern Lights it might seem pretty straightforward, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t get this! Because our magnetic field is weaker near the poles, that’s where those solar particles are entering our atmosphere. That means they’re in the north (or south if you’re on the other side). This is why having a compass can be handy, so you’re not wasting time staring in the wrong direction.

Another important tip is to make sure you’re going at the right time of the year, and for long enough! In places like Fairbanks, Alaska (where we went), the Northern Lights season is typically late August to early April. Why? Well, while the lights actually happen year-round, it does need to be dark enough to see them. That means you’ll want to avoid the summers when there is a lot more sunlight than those of us in the lower 48 are used to!

During our trip to Churchill, we were told that the colder it is, the fewer chances for precipitation. And that’s good. Because then there’s less likelihood of cloudy nights and you need a clear sky! If it’s a thin layer of clouds they might appear hazy green, but you won’t see them distinctly. While we were in Fairbanks it got COLD! I mean, there were days with negative 20-30F temperatures! And we had 4 amazing nights of lights! That’s why it’s also good to plan on staying a few nights. That way, if there is bad weather the first night, you have other chances. Just know that arctic weather can change quickly too!

Keep the Lights Off

Just like we talked about the right time of year because it needs to be dark to see the lights, you’re going to want to avoid other sources of light pollution. Get out of the city. Turn the car headlights off. Don’t turn porch lights on. Really, you should keep it dark inside too because that light can float out. Not only will the dark sky make it easier to see the Aurora, but it will help your eyes adjust. If you need light for things like adjusting settings on your camera, use a small flashlight or a red headlamp. Trust me, your eyes will thank you!

Packing the Necessities

As you’re preparing to chase the Northern Lights, make sure you pack the right items! If you’re planning to photograph them, you’ll need your camera, a wide-angle lens is suggested, and definitely a tripod. You’ll also want a way to take pictures without shaking the camera. Yes, pressing the button can shake the camera too much. Most people suggest a remote shutter release. It could be corded to the camera or wireless. However, I just used my timer. Get all the settings right, set your timer for a couple of seconds, and then step away!

This was my first time ever photographing the Northern Lights. I’m not an expert in any way! Still learning, and I realize my photos aren’t perfect, but they captured the moments!

While we’re talking about cameras, just a smidge of advice. If you’re in an area where there are other people, be aware of your surroundings! If you see a camera out, don’t walk in front of it. The cameras are set on a long exposure, so when you walk in front of it, you’re ruining the picture. Be considerate gosh darn-it!

The most important things to pack when heading to see the Aurora Borealis are warm clothes! Remember we talked about going in the winter? Obviously, that means it’s going to be cold and you’ll probably spend a good amount of time out in the cold! Bring thermal layers, warm boots, wool socks, a scarf, a good winter coat, gloves, and a hat. For me, I had the most issues with my toes and fingers. I have great winter boots, but when you’re out there as long as we were, eventually that cold can creep in. That’s where feet warmers come in! Bring them and hand warmers! My winter gloves were too bulky for using the camera, so unfortunately I had to wear lightweight ones, and those warmers were a finger saver! (I’ll definitely be investing in better winter/photography gloves before next time!)

Northern Light in Fairbanks, Alaska

Planning Your Trip

Let’s talk about things other than seeing the lights. Because, what if you don’t see them? What if you travel somewhere and they never make an appearance? That’s a major bummer! That’s why you must plan some other activities for during the day. Obviously, you’ll be rather tired during the day because you spent all night awake waiting for the magic, but after you catch up on your rest, you need to have something to look forward to doing! When we went to Fairbanks we had a handful of other things planned that we could look forward to. Something to write home about even if we didn’t see the lights.

A lot of people think, freezing cold weather, what is there to do? Plenty! At the first location we stayed you could go dog sledding, take helicopter rides, meet and feed reindeer, go snowmobiling, and all sorts of other fun things. You could do a lot of the same at the second place we visited, but also spend time in the natural hot springs, visit the Ice Museum, or take a Geothermal Renewable Energy Tour. While we did have some amazing Nothern Lights viewing, if we hadn’t we still wouldn’t have felt like the trip had been a total waste. The truth is, you just can’t control if you’re going to see the lights!

Track the Aurora Borealis

There are many different ways to monitor the likelihood of seeing the Aurora Borealis. One is by simply checking the weather. Remember, we need a clear sky! There are a couple of apps that you can also download where you can see the light forecast: My Aurora Forecast, Aurora Forecast, and Aurora Forecast & Alerts. I’ll also just visit the SWPC NOAA website. Just a reminder, these are just forecasts!

Auroras at Borealis Basecamp

I will mention that the last night we saw lights, earlier in the day the forecast wasn’t the greatest. We had decided to just go to bed and wait for our wake-up call (a lot of hotels up there will make wake-up calls when the lights make their appearance). So we went to bed. Before I closed my eyes I checked one of my apps again, and it looked like there was actually a strong chance for some strong lights, and they were just reaching us. I thought, oh, well they’ll call us. Then I got an alert through one of the apps. Then another alert. Finally, I rolled over and woke mom up. We decided to head right out, and almost as we walked out the door the sky began to dance. That was the best night of lights we had! They were phenomenal! So use the apps!

So, here’s my insight into the Northern Lights. Some highlights of the science behind them and some tips I picked up while I was chasing the Aurora Borealis myself! And I can’t wait to do it again! They are amazing!

Learn the highlights behind the science of what causes the Northern Lights, and learn some tips to help you chase them!

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