How to Look for the Northern Lights

March 20, 2012
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A green band of the northern lights, aka aurora borealis, glows above Blacktail Butte in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
‘A green band of the northern lights, aka aurora borealis, glows above Blacktail Butte in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

UPDATE – For those looking to get more specific and accurate, be sure to look into Olivier Du Tre’s comments below.

Despite only seeing them a total of less than 10 times in my entire life, I still seem to be the one that people look to for information on the northern lights, particularly around Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There are first a couple of common myths that I’d like to debunk.

Northern lights can only be seen in Scandinavia, Alaska, or Canada. False. Northern lights can be seen anywhere. It only depends on the severity of the solar storm that impacts Earth (explained further below). A solar storm in the fall of 2011 was even seen as far south as Alabama and Arizona.

Northern lights can only be seen during winter. False. Northern lights can be seen at any time during the year, but because of the previous myth in addition to the latitudes of those locations, there’s only enough darkness to see them there during winter. With nearly 24 hours of daylight during summer months, it’s virtually impossible to see them up there during summer, even though they could very well be out.

With that being said, you really don’t need any special equipment or techniques to know if they’re out. The Aurora Borealis are completely dependent on sunspot activity that takes place on the Sun. A site like SpaceWeather.com gives plenty of information for what you need to see them. There are two images in the left column that are of importance when searching for the auroras, the second being the primary, and more immediate factor. The first shows an image of the Sun with sunspots (if any) labeled. If any of these should erupt while facing Earth (factoring into account orbits, of course), a burst of plasma will head toward the planet, typically within a few days, impacting the magnetic field around the poles, and depending of the strength of the impact and burst, will cause the field to light up and push south (in layman’s terms). Back on SpaceWeather.com, the second image in the left column will show you a radar of sorts imaging the current state of the northern lights. This is an easy way to see if they’re over where you live.

Just below that second image is a reading known as the K-Index. This is simply a scale that measures the severity of the storm in progress as its affecting Earth, as well as its potential maximum impact. It’s its own arbitrary scale, much like the Richter scale that measures earthquakes. This graph showing the K-Index reaches will allow you to see how strong the impact needs to be to see the northern lights depending on where you live. For example, if the K-Index is at 6, I know they will be on the northern horizon here in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at which point I’ll most likely drive up into Grand Teton National Park to get a clear view. If they’re at 7, we’ll be having a good show. A similar graph is also available for Europe and Asia. An important thing to remember is that the graphs show the K-Index necessary to see the northern lights overhead. If you cut the distance in half between two of the lines, that is what you can see on the northern horizon. For example, if you’re in southern Utah and you see that the K-Index is at 9, it’d be very worth your while to find a clear view north and get your camera equipment ready!

When I know there’s an impact imminent, I also find this site very helpful. It’s very text-based, but shows a text reading of the K-Index for the immediate future and is very reliable. I even have it bookmarked on my phone so that I can check it while I’m out waiting or hopeful.

It really is all about just checking either of those two sites and knowing what K-Index you need to see them. If you see a number show up that indicates they’ll be out, or at least a bit north for where you live, head out to clear area away from light pollution, and see what you can see once your eyes adjust to the darkness. Usually you want to give your eyes about five minutes to adjust. A camera can also pick up the fainter lights that your eyes can’t see. Look for another blog post in the future discussing the technical aspects of that.

This particular time is also perfect for northern lights because our Sun is entering what’s known as a solar maximum, meaning sunspot activity will be peaking for the next year or two. With more sunspots comes more opportunities for northern lights! So keep your eyes on the northern lights forecast and get ready for some great shows!

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