Each person is unique, so all travelers have different desires and dreams. Some prefer hot beaches, diving and exploring underwater world, and others enjoy skiing and snowboarding in beautiful mountain ranges. There are people who go to another country only to look at its sights or architecture, while others prefer to enjoy the beauty of its landscapes. And there are also those who travel the world to marvel the most beautiful natural phenomena. One of such phenomena is the enchanting and even unearthly light show arranged by Mother Nature which we know as the Northern lights.
What is this “hunting for the Northern Lights“? It is a drive to leave everything and rush to a certain place where this fantastic colorful phenomenon can be observed. Let us learn where, when and how you can watch the incredible dance of the Northern lights in Alaska.
- 1 A little of history Northern Lights in Alaska
- 2 Where to see the Northern lights in Alaska
- 3 How to increase your chances to see the Northern lights in Alaska
- 4 Some things that will be useful for the Northern lights observation
- 5 Now you know much about the Northern lights
A little of history Northern Lights in Alaska
People observed the Northern lights from the very early times of Human civilization. The cave drawings made more than 30 thousand years ago show the first attempt to capture this mysterious phenomenon.
The ancient Vikings perceived the shimmering glow in the night sky as the glare of swords of the Valkyries, who take the warriors to Valhalla’s palaces. Some people regarded it as a gateway to the other world, others as a sign of discontent among the gods. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the Northern lights predicted epidemics and wars.
Some legends are still alive today. The Saami call the polar light “a light that can be heard,” and many people who regularly observe this phenomenon say that they really hear its crackling and rustle.
But even now, when we already know the nature of this bright light show, the Northern lights keep being fascinating and surprising.
A bit of science
The sun periodically throws out huge streams of electrically charged particles into the outer space. Nowadays it is no longer a secret that the Northern lights phenomenon is a result of the collision of the charged solar particles with the magnetic field of the Earth. These particles are rapidly moving away from the Sun in a vortex flow, which we call the solar wind. When colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field at a distance of 100-400 km above us, ionization of the charged particles results in the bizarre, striking shapes and shades of flashes in the sky.
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Most of the charged solar wind particles that reach our planet are reflected. However, some still manage to break into the Earth’s magnetic field. These particles form a beautiful glow, colliding with air molecules. Yellow, green and red colors appear due to the oxygen content in the air, and blue and violet shades appear due to nitrogen. Aurora Borealis is the scientific name of this phenomenon, given in honor of the Roman goddess of the morning dawn. Often people forget that Aurora is also observed at the South Pole. But it is called Aurora Australis. The Antarctic is not as easily reached as the Arctic, so the Northern lights Alaska seems to be the best choice.
The richness of colors
Gases of the Earth’s atmosphere emit different color glow depending on the height of the layers in which they are located. The most common Aurora color is the yellowish shade of green. It is emitted when the charged solar particles collide with oxygen molecules at an altitude of about 97 km. The ruby color of Aurora is explained by collisions with oxygen at higher altitudes (about 320 km).
Nitrogen molecules emit blue glow at lower altitudes, and when charged particles collide with them at a higher altitude, we see a shade of magenta and lilac flowers. Breaking through the different levels of the atmosphere, these colors can be transformed into shades of pink and white.
The best time to see Aurora
Predicting the Northern lights is almost impossible. However, the scientists were able to establish several regularities.
The traditional season of the Northern Lights Alaska is the period between autumn and spring equinox: from September 21 to March 21. In this period, it gets dark very early in the northern latitudes. The probability is still higher in winter – approximately from November to February. At this time the night lasts for 18-20 hours, and even a weak glow can be seen clearly enough. On the other hand, closer to spring, there are more chances for clear weather (this is a necessary condition – if the sky is overcast, you will not see anything). The University of Alaska advises the period of the new moon in March as the best time for chasing the Northern lights: it will be dark enough and, most likely, clear. The best time of day to observe this nature wonder is from 9 pm to midnight. After midnight, the deviations in the magnetic poles of the Earth equalize, so the chances decrease. The ideal night for the Northern lights Alaska is clear and frosty.
The Northern lights Alaska predictions
The scientists state that now it’s time of what is called the solar minimum period, which means that solar activity is at its lowest. Still, this activity exists and will gradually grow and in 2024-2026 the solar maximum is expected. This happens according to the 11-year solar cycle. But it doesn’t mean that it is impossible to see the Northern lights now. They still can be seen quite regularly. It only means that the intensity and frequency of this phenomenon has decreased to some extent.
Where to see the Northern lights in Alaska
Northern lights can be seen within the so called “Auroral Oval”. This is the zone of most active Aurora activity at the latitude of approximately 65-70 °. However, with the increased solar activity, it can be observed at lower latitudes as well.
Many tourists come to Alaska to admire the fantastic spectacle because this is the best place to find the darkest nights and the brightest lights of Aurora. Of course, you need to carefully plan your trip. A boundless snowy desert and the sky burning with green and red flashes – this is the sight you will never forget.
Here are the best places to come to with this purpose:
Fairbanks is probably the best place to see Northern lights Alaska, because it is located right inside the Auroral Oval. It is the most Northern city in the US, but even this is not enough to enjoy the full Aurora. So, tourists here are offered special excursions. Among them there is a trip to the Arctic Circle, where you can see this most beautiful natural phenomenon. One of the best ways to get to the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks is the Alaska Winter Snow Train. It offers an unforgettable journey through remote and deserted places. But there are also dog sled rides, for those who love being closer to the nature.
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Back in the past Coldfoot was a gold-mining settlement. But now it is one of the best places to see Northern lights in Alaska. The reason for such popularity is the Coldfoot Camp, located in the Brooks Mountains. Many tours start their adventures there.
Barrow is a small town far in the North of Alaska. It is famous for its Top of the World Hotel. The hotel organizes interesting tours which usually include seeing the Northern lights. You can settle here with great comfort.
There are many other good observation places around Alaska like Haystack Mountain, Ester, Wickersham, and Murphy Domes. A lot of local guides will suggest you to go with them further North. Thus, you will feel like a “polar wolf”, the hero of the novels of Jack London, and the spectacle of the Northern lights will generously reward you for all the inconveniences suffered. In a word, the Northern lights Alaska can be one of the brightest impressions of your life. Take the time and energy to see it with your own eyes.
How to increase your chances to see the Northern lights in Alaska
Here are some tips to help you find the best time and place to see the Northern lights, especially if you are not taking any tour or guide, and want to do it on your own.
Follow the information on the Sun’s activity
As you already know, appearance of the Northern lights entirely depends on the solar activity. The solar wind reaches the upper layers of the Earth atmosphere within a period of 2-5 days. This is the time at your disposal to reach the place where you can observe the Northern lights.
The higher the activity of the Sun, the more likely it is to see the Northern lights. Such activity is determined by the magnetic activity index (K-index).
Here are the values of the K-index:
- 1-3 points: low magnetic activity and low chances to see the Northern lights.
- 4-5 points: quite active ejections and good chances to see Aurora.
- 6-9 points: high magnetic activity allowing to see the Northern lights for sure.
A lot of observatories monitor the space weather. If you wish to see the Northern lights, consult the relevant websites to learn the K-index and read the forecasts. The most reliable sources in the US are The Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Space Weather Prediction Center. As soon as the K-index reaches 4-5 and higher – pack things and go North. You can conveniently follow the Northern lights Alaska forecasts through the applications of the US CPC for iOS and Android.
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Stay away from settlements.
When the Northern lights flare up in the sky, the lights of settlements can prevent good viewing. Therefore, move away from big city lights as well as small villages. The larger the settlement, the further you need to go. It is enough to drive 5-10 km away from a small village, while it is better to cover 50-70 km away from a large city.
Wait for clear skies
The Northern lights are formed in the upper layers of the atmosphere at an altitude of more than 100 km. The clouds are always lower, that is, they will be between you and the desired spectacle. In winter, there are better chances of clear skies on sunny frosty days and during very cold periods.
Go further north
The closer you get to the Arctic Circle, the better are the chances to see the Northern lights. Although, it depends on the value of the K-index: if it rolls up to 8-9 points, the Northern lights can be observed even in areas where they occur really seldom.
Some things that will be useful for the Northern lights observation
Alaska offers many organized tours to see Aurora. Tourists are offered all possible services from lodging and food to clothing and necessary equipment. Still, many hunters for the Northern lights prefer travelling on their own and being completely independent. If you are going to be one of them, reading the following tips can help you avoid many unpleasant situations and disappointments.
Using a car (own or rented)
The car can greatly help in hunting for the Northern lights Alaska. However, It’s not all about a quick escape from the city to choose a convenient viewing place. The main advantage of the car is its heating system, because the colds in Alaska can be really severe.
Full tank of fuel + some extra
If you want to bask in the car from time to time, it makes sense not to muffle it and heat it constantly.
Thermos with tea
Take some hot tea or coffee with. Alcohol is out of question as it only gives a deceptive feeling of being warmed up, while in reality your body will easily catch cold.
Sure, you won’t forget about warm clothes. But pay special attention to boots, because waiting for the Northern lights to appear can take quite long, and standing in the snow you may soon feel quite frozen.
You need a tripod if you want to get high-quality photos.
It’s really cold in Alaska. Batteries are discharged very quickly in such conditions. Make sure that you take extra batteries just in case. It will be a great disappointment if the Northern lights are dancing around you in the starry sky and all you do is try to switch on your camera or phone and it doesn’t show any sign of life. Store batteries in the car or, even better, in the inner pockets of your clothes.
A good camera
We all want memories of the brightest events in our live. Seeing the Northern lights is one of such moments worth capturing. Photographing it with a compact digital camera or smartphone is theoretically possible, but the quality of such photos will be low. Therefore, if you want to capture the entire spectacle – take an action camera or some kind of professional camera with.
Now you know much about the Northern lights
This is an incredible sight that should be included in the must-see list of every person. The elusiveness and unpredictability of the phenomenon can make the Northern journey very spectacular, romantic and even adventurous. If you manage to catch the mysterious dance of the Northern lights, you will be completely enchanted by the most unearthly spectacle to be seen without leaving the planet.