The aurora borealis (northern lights) are one of the most amazing natural phenomena on earth. Period. Having grown up in Alaska, I have had the opportunity to view them all my life and they never get old. As I have advanced in years, I think I get more and more like a kid at Christmas when they come out. I just can’t wait.
I remember multiple times when I was a kid that my dad would wake me up in the middle of the night to stand on the deck to watch the celestial dance. My biggest recollection is how cold it was outside and how I just wanted to go back to bed. Now, I’m willing to climb to to the top of a mountain and stay up all night just to see them.
To get the best viewing experience of the Aurora Borealis, there are a couple factors you should be aware of.
- High KP Index
My favorite place to check what the KP index is going to be is the University of Alaska Fairbanks and their Aurora Forecast page. The KP index is the global geomagnetic activity index that is based on 3-hour measurements from ground-based magnetometers around the world. Do you really need to know what that means? No. It ranges from 0-9 with higher numbers meaning a higher possibility of seeing stuff. Plus, their page has a picture showing where you should be able to see stuff.
- Geomagnetic Storm
You can read about what a Geomagnetic Storm is at NOAA. From my experience, if you don’t have a storm, then you’re not going to get much movement in the skies even though you might have a high KP index. At least that’s the case for viewing in southeast Alaska. A G1 or G2 storm is all that’s needed to really get the sky moving.
- Clear Skies
This should go without saying, but if you want to see the Northern Lights, you need to be able to see the sky. Southeast Alaska is notorious for cloud cover. I read a study a while back that listed Juneau as the least sunny city in the US. Trying to line up the first 2 factors with clear skies is a bit hit and miss around here.
- Low Moonlight
A full moon will tend to wash out the sky and make the Aurora Borealis less intense looking. You can still see it if all the other factors are high, but your best viewing experience would be during a new moon or if the moon hasn’t risen yet.
Most people tend to think of viewing the Northern Lights in winter.
That is often the case due to the long days of summer in Alaska. It’s hard to see the aurora if the sun doesn’t set or the sky doesn’t get dark. The awesome thing is…It doesn’t have to be cold out to view the Northern Lights.
If you have all the factors working in your favor, you can see the aurora borealis in August. The aurora forecast can give you a 2-3 week idea of what things are going to look like. Match that with some advanced weather forecasts and the moon cycle and you could plan a trip with 2 weeks notice just to view this awesome phenomena!
Be aware, if the forecast says Sep 1 is going to be good…it means Aug 31 night time to Sep 1 morning!
I’m too embarrassed to say how many times I’ve missed an awesome show. This being due to forgetting how to read the forecast properly. Don’t be like Peter. Stay up all night on the correct night. If you’re going to Iceland, the date is correct. Alaska just happens to be special 🙂