A brilliant moon illuminates fresh white snow on the Kenai Mountains in southcentral Alaska as multicolored auroras dance above Portage Lake on November 7, 2017, at 3:33 am. Photo by Todd Salat.
“I hear the northern lights are going to shut off because we’re in the low of the solar cycle,” someone had told me a while back. This thought flashed through my mind as I stood bewildered by the aurora dancing directly over me last March in Alaska’s interior. Not one night, but five nights in a row, the nighttime sky erupted with wild, bizarre sheets of emerald white and crimson light rippling and following the turbulent whims of our magnetic field interacting with the solar wind. Science turned magical.
It’s true that we are currently in what’s called solar minimum, the quieter phase in the approximate 11-year sunspot cycle. This means sunspots are low in number. Headline-grabbing explosions like solar flares and CMEs (coronal mass ejections), the generating energy behind widespread aurora displays, are less frequent. But do not despair; the sun is always kicking off energy, and the auroras never completely shut off. You might have to hunt a little harder for the lights, but that’s an integral part of the fun and reward.
Best time of year to see Northern Lights
In the central part of Alaska, aurora season begins in the early part of August when darkness creeps back into the sky after a long, bright summer. It ends sometime in early May when it becomes too bright to see the aurora. Statistically, September, October, and March are the best months because of an enhanced solar-terrestrial connection around the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Best place in Alaska to see Aurora
There are definite opportunities to see the auroras in southcentral Alaska (for example, around Anchorage latitudes), but your chances increase as you head north toward places like Talkeetna, Cantwell, and the Alaska Range. Head farther north through Healy, Delta Junction, and Tok on up to Fairbanks, the hub of Alaska’s interior, and odds grow exponentially. These regions are under the auroral oval: a wide, ring-shaped zone that encircles Earth’s magnetic poles and has the highest statistical occurrence for aurora activity. This high-energy auroral zone is transected as one travels even farther north up the Dalton Highway, crossing the Yukon River, Arctic Circle, Brooks Range, North Slope, and ending at Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse. That’s all good aurora country, but the trick is to score clear Earth weather along with active space weather.
Several aurora-touring operators exist in Alaska—an online search yields many reputable options.
Aurora Guarantee Policy
“Are there any guarantees I’ll see the northern lights?” I get asked this a lot, and the answer is no. One thing I can guarantee, however, is that your chances will be a heckuva lot better going out to look for them than staying at home wondering. The extra challenge makes experiencing the greatest light show on Earth well worth the effort.