How Do You See The Northern Lights?

How Do You See The Northern Lights?

When can I see Aurora Borealis?


When, Where & How Bright

Anybody can talk about the weather, but nobody can do anything except predict, wait, and watch. So it goes with the next “solar maximum” cycle, when peaking storm activity on the sun will lead to increasingly spectacular light shows in the northern skies here on earth known as the Northern Lights. The last minimum was in 2008, and the next predicted maximum currently ranges from 2012 through 2014.

Depending on the source, we should be preparing for communication interruptions if the next round of solar storms comes in fast and furious, or global chilling if the storms miss a cycle (a possibility, in one recent forecast).

Somewhat calmer prognosticators at NASA have adjusted their own expectations of a frenetic solar maximum rivaling 1958, when the Aurora Borealis was sighted in Mexico, to predict a cycle slightly busier than the modest maximum of 1907.

Confused? Fair enough, me, too. But let’s move on to “where” and “how,” and we’ll revisit “when” and “how bright” later.

Northern Lights in Alaska

Solar Storms = Aurora Borealis

Some North American natives explained the earthly displays of the Aurora Borealis as torchlight from sky-dwellers to guide the spirits of earth-people after death, and others said the torches revealed where the manabai’wok (giants) were spearing fish that night.

When can you see Aurora Borealis? Chinese and Greek scholars recorded solar storms as early as the 4th century BCE, and a regular 11-year solar minimum/maximum cycle was first described by astronomers in 1843. Solar storms = sunspots = Aurora Borealis, via magnetized “solar winds” that sweep from the poles of the sun across the earth’s magnetic field.

Collisions with atoms in our atmosphere cause auroral light rings around the north and south poles — and just maybe, a whistling, hissing, bristling, or swooshing sound. According to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, only one recording has been confirmed so far, but the people of the North warned 19th century explorer Ernest W. Hawkes that when the sky-dwellers communicate, one should only answer in a whisper.

Back To The Future

The solar maximum cycle now seems on track to bring ever-increasing Aurora Borealis displays through 2012 and 2013, so when traveling high latitudes, keep a weather eye on the pole-ward horizon. Look for curtains of greenish-white light dancing in the night, and if sky-dwellers communicate, remember to whisper your answers to the giant solar storm.

This essay was originally created for the 2012 OARS catalog. For more compelling stories from other renowned writers, request your catalog copy today!