A Traveler’s Guide to the Aurora Borealis

This is a guide for those living outside the zone of most frequent auroral activity who would like to know how, when and where to travel to see this amazing phenomenon. The figures below show you the locations on Earth with the most frequent occurrence of aurora borealis (left) and aurora australis (right) during the period of best viewing around the middle of the night. Because of the limited possibility of travel to remote parts of Antarctica when skies are dark, we will restrict our discussion to the northern hemisphere.

 midnight aurora

We have chosen this level of auroral activity, index Kp=2, because it will occur often enough that you will probably see the aurora in this region if you travel there and stay for three days or a week, and if the skies are clear. If the activity is higher than 2, you will still observe the stronger motions, color changes, etc., that are seen farther equatorward.  

Clear skies are a requirement, so you should try to choose a location and a season that is blessed with the clearest skies. The continental locations in Russia, Alaska and western Canada, shown to have the clearest skies under the auroral zone in the figure, will also be at their clearest around the spring equinox. So the dark of the moon in March is the best time of year to travel to the auroral zone since the yearly variation of auroral activity also peaks around the equinox.

 average cloudiness

There are some steps you can take to begin the process of acquainting yourself with auroral activity.

  1. Access the auroral forecast page directly at: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/.
  2. Become acquainted with the aurora and other arctic geophysical phenomena at http://asahi-classroom.gi.alaska.edu/www.swpc.noaa.gov/ and www.gi.alaska.edu/.
  3. For great tips on viewing the aurora, and an explanation of Kp, go to www.swpc.noaa.gov/phenomena/aurora.
  4. For information about photographing the aurora, travel and other subjects of interest to the aurora watcher, visit sites by Jan Curtis climate.gi.alaska.edu/Curtis/curtis.html, Patrick Endres' blog /how-to-photograph-the-northern-lights-with-a-digital-camera, and Ronn and Marketa Murray www.ronnmurrayphoto.com/.
You may have heard that solar activity and therefore auroral activity approached a maximum in the year 2012. This maximum will last about four to five years. What it means is that there will be more auroras visible from locations south of the main auroral occurrence zone than during the solar minimum years. During the active part of the solar cycle, it is difficult to predict aurora beyond about three days, since an important source of activity is sporadic outbursts from various active regions on the sun. During declining sunspot activity (2006-2010), the main sources of activity were more stable both in location and intensity, so that we could more confidently predict the return of activity with the 28-day rotation of the sun.  

When sunspot activity maximized in 2012-2013, we were again able to depend on the 28-day-recurrence phenomenon during the maximum and the subsequent decline. We cannot say whether the aurora will be active during the one or two weeks you will choose to travel north to see the aurora. However, we can isolate the days of higher activity in each solar rotation (28 days) as much as two rotations in advance.

In Alaska, Fairbanks is not at the location of the greatest occurrence frequency of aurora, but you can see it from there and transportation and accommodation is relatively more available than Bettles, Coldfoot, Wiseman, Fort Yukon, Prudhoe Bay and Point Barrow. Besides, the aurora is brighter and more active the farther equatorward it occurs, so Fairbanks provides a good balance of occurrence frequency and activity.

Canadian towns as good as Fairbanks for aurora viewing are Whitehorse, Dawson, Watson Lake, Yellowknife, Fort Nelson, Fort Smith, Fort McMurray, Flin Flon, Grand Rapids, Gillam and Churchill, and around southern Hudson Bay and James Bay. It is possible to drive to many of these areas, but the trip requires significant time, so for those who are time-limited, flying may be the best option. The Canadian rail system has a scheduled train across the auroral zone from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba.  

The towns in Ontario north of the Great Lakes (Cochrane, Kapuskasing, Matagami and Chibougamau) are equatorward of the zone, but are places with good chances of seeing aurora on roughly five out of 10 clear, dark nights. Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton have about the same probability. Farther east, the weather is the predominant limiting factor. Unfortunately the region known as the Canadian Maritimes, southern Greenland and Iceland are usually cloud-bound and the aurora is not visible. We have had many reports of good viewing from Iceland, however.

West of Alaska, the auroral zone follows the northern coast of Russia, where travel and accommodation are difficult at best. Northern Scandinavia offers excellent viewing, especially in the spring of the year. In fact, the only cruise ships with a regularly scheduled route under the auroral zone are the ships of “Hurtiruten,” the Norwegian Coastal Ferries. See hwww.hurtigruten.com/us/norway-voyages/ to plan a trip from September through March, since the skies are lit by the midnight sun from April through August.

Where you stay is not as important as arranging for transportation outside town to avoid city lights, and to acquire a clear view of the northern horizon. Dress warmly, plan to watch the sky between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time, although an active period can occur anytime during the dark hours. Active periods are typically about 30 minutes long, and occur every two hours, if the activity is high. The aurora is a sporadic phenomenon, occurring randomly for short periods or perhaps not at all. If you can monitor the short term forecast, it will reliably tell you what is expected in the next hour.

When you should travel depends on the best chance for clear skies and little or no moonlight. For most destinations, that means December through April, for two weeks around the dark of the moon. The best for clear weather and darkness when there are also interesting daytime activities is February/March/April.

We recognize that the aurora is visible at night across the U.S. during the summer when the aurora is not visible in Alaska because of our sunlit nights. The auroral forecast page is active all year, because the Kiwis and Tasmanians have dark enough skies in the northern summer to view the aurora. Also, midnight aurora is visible at the northern border of the U.S. where the midnight sky is dark enough if the planetary magnetic disturbance index, Kp, is higher than 4 to 5.

A Traveler's Guide to Viewing the Aurora From Fairbanks

For specific information on accomodations, etc., go to www.explorefairbanks.com/.

The residents of Fairbanks, Alaska, are accustomed to spectacular views of the aurora borealis or northern lights. Many residents routinely stay up late at night to photograph this phenomenon or just to experience the widely different forms it takes with each new display. Most people view from their homes, but many travel out of town away from the city lights for the most spectacular views.

The best time of year is in the spring when the probability for clear skies is twice as likely as in the fall. Two weeks around new moon in March is best; viewing can be good from early January to late April, however.

If you come in the fall, the last two weeks of August and the first three weeks of September are best for weather, but the aurora is there behind the clouds (60 percent probability) during the entire winter.

The time for viewing is between evening and morning civil twilights (sun 6 degrees below the horizon) on clear or even partly cloudy nights. Major storms can occur any time and local intensification is most common between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Viewing is best with little or no moonlight.

Visitors to Fairbanks should travel to a place up on a hill to have the best view of the horizon, since they must make the most of their viewing time and the aurora can occur in any part of the sky. During solar activity maximum years, most auroral storms start south of Fairbanks. During the solar activity minimum years, the auroral storms start north of Fairbanks and occur in the midnight hours.

Although trees make good foreground in auroral photographs, too many of them can limit the full experience of the aurora. Another concern for visitors is extremely cold winter weather, and some small problems may be magnified into disaster at a site that is too remote.

You may arrange for a wake-up call in some Fairbanks hotels when the aurora is out.

Recommended sites around Fairbanks are:
•    Chena Lakes Recreation Area
•    Ester, Wickersham, and Murphy Domes
•    Haystack Mountain
•    Some turnouts along the Elliot, Steese, and Parks Highways
•    Cleary Summit

Of these, only Cleary Summit satisfies all of the criteria for a good viewing location. It is close enough to town (17 mi.) so that viewers can stay at any hotel, experience daytime activities, and yet have a dark, quiet place with a good view to the horizon all around. There is good highway access, a parking lot, an auroral viewing concession and tourist accommodations.

We should mention also that there might be some people who are hoping to hear the aurora. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the aurora watcher. It may only be accomplished successfully during the most active overhead displays, on windless nights and away from any other noise sources such as dogs barking or traffic noise.

Copyright(c) 2012 C. Deehr