Chasing and capturing the shimmering northern lights
[by Todd Salat]
I pulled my eye away from the camera with a pluck and a yelp. There, frozen to the frost on my viewfinder, was one of my eyelashes.
What was I thinking? Was I crazy for going on an aurora hunt to the Arctic Circle in January, the cold heart and chilly soul of winter in the Interior of Alaska? It was 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and nothing was working properly, including my fingers and camera.
I knew I had reached my breaking point when the brittle film in my camera cracked in half during mid-rewind.
Of course, the auroras didn’t care—they were dancing everywhere! Ribbons of green and pink northern lights gyrated across the sky in a display of power that left me spellbound. At least that was enough to keep me warm on the inside.
What draws a person out of a nice, warm home in the middle of an Alaska winter, for goodness sake? The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis. To witness luminous ribbons of light dancing across the nighttime sky is one of those things you have to see to believe.
For us earthbound creatures, the aurora gives us a chance to experience something both astronomical and spiritual. They challenge the limits of our imagination with their brilliant—sometimes unfathomable— antics. Adjective abuse is hard to avoid when trying to describe these mysterious lights, but once the connection is made, the feeling is pure and simply awe-inspiring! I live for this feeling, but it does not come without a price in time and energy.
- Planning Your Aurora Hunt
If seeing the aurora is on your bucket list, this may be a good time to act. We are presently in the peak phase of the solar cycle, an approximate 11-year cycle in which the number of sunspots increases as the sun goes through a turbulent magnetic reversal. Buzzwords you should keep a keen ear out for include solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME). If you hear the sun has just erupted a CME and it’s geoeffective (earth-directed), you have 24 to 72 hours to be in position before that aurora-generating wave of solar wind strikes earth … and that’s the ultimate trick. If you are traveling from afar you may not have the luxury to react quickly, so your best bet is to 1) become knowledgeable in the relationship between the sun and the aurora, 2) plan a trip for at least a few nights, preferably a week, and 3) hope luck is on your side and clear earth weather meets active space weather.
- Where to Go
Go north! The most common place to see the aurora is under the famed auroral oval, a several-hundred-mile-wide, doughnut-shaped ring that encircles the earth’s magnetic north pole. The auroral oval encompasses tried-and-true destinations like Chena Hot Springs in the Fairbanks region and Coldfoot in the Brooks Range. During big geomagnetic substorms, the auroral oval stretches southward and the northern lights can be seen flickering above the Alaska Range in places like Denali, Cantwell, Paxson and Tok. Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen have been even farther south— around Talkeetna, Hatcher Pass and Anchorage —but these events are less common, and if time is precious, I would stick with the adage and Go North!
- When to Go
Statistically, the best chance of seeing the aurora is during the equinox months of September and March (it has to do with the tilt of the earth and sun). May, June and July are out because during summer in the “Land of the Midnight Sun” it just does not get dark enough to see the aurora. When autumn returns to the Great Land, stars twinkle once again and this is a fine time to sit around a campfire and gaze in wide wonder as the sky above erupts into towering columns of light. September is a precious aurora-hunting month if for no other reason than it is not too cold.
- March Madness
Perhaps the most popular month of the year for aurora enthusiasts is March. This is a good time to up your odds of seeing the kind of aurora display that stays in your memory forever, the coveted once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Patience is absolutely critical to be successful in your aurora-hunting endeavor. The key is to stay awake as late as humanly possible, especially if it’s clear and the aurora forecast is positive. If you have to go inside to warm up, make it a point to look north every 15-30 minutes until dawn. Be savvy and request hotel rooms with a north-viewing window. Be prepared for bad-weather nights and bring a good book or three. Plan your daily activities for the afternoon so you can sleep until the crack of noon. This is a tough game and demands perseverance and a night-owl mentality. I like to say I have a 9-to-5 job—9 p.m. to 5 a.m., the aurora shift.
Todd Salat has been a full-time Alaska aurora hunter for the past 15 years. Visit his website at www.AuroraHunter.com.