Catch An Aurora! 5 Of The Best Tools To Spot The Magical Polar Lights

Ads by Google

This winter is one of the best times to see polar lights. The next best time is in about 10 years, so you better catch them now. To stand a good chance of a polar light sighting, you need to be in the right place at the right time. An understanding of how Aurorae work and forecasts can help. This article provides the resources for both.

What Is An Aurora?

An Aurora, also known as polar lights, is a natural phenomenon caused by electrically charged particles from the sun that enter Earth’s atmosphere. Aurorae are best visible close to the planet’s magnetic poles; on Earth, as well as other planets, should you ever visit one. The Aurora Borealis or northern lights can be seen close to the North Pole, while its southern counterpart is known as Aurora Australis or southern lights.

We have previously shown you videos of the Aurora Borealis filmed from space.

What Causes Aurorae?

Aurorae originate at the sun, which continuously ejects matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. When the charged particles reach Earth’s magnetosphere, it re-directs some of them to its polar regions.

Magnetosphere & Soloar Winds

The particles flowing towards the poles are energentically boosted in Earth’s upper atmosphere. When they finally collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere, they can produce a spectacle of light in the sky, known as Aurora.

Ads by Google

The following video beautifully explains how an Aurora is formed, and it concludes with breathtaking images.

When & Where Can I Best See Aurorae?

This depends on several factors.

While the sun continuously releases soloar particles, some ejections are stronger than others. Naturally, the particles take some time to reach the Earth. An ejection strong enough to cause Aurorae will be visible on Earth two to three days later.

Since Aurorae depend on the release of solar particles, they tend to be most frequent and strongest during high solar sunspot activity, which follows an 11 year cycle. We are currently in cycle 24, which reached its maximum in summer 2013. Aurorae are strongest for around 3 years around the solar cycle’s peak.

Solar Cycle

Apart from solar particle eruptions and the solar cycle, the visibility of Aurorae depends on your geographical location, as well as the local weather and light pollution.

To summarize, the best conditions for Aurora viewings are:

  • high solar activity,
  • during night time,
  • high latitude,
  • clear sky,
  • little surrounding light from a city or the moon.

How Can I Predict My Chances Of Seeing An Aurora?

The level of geomagnetic activity can give a clue as to how good your chances are, depending on your magnetic latitude. The geomagnetic activity for a 3-hour period is given using the Kp index, which ranges from 0 (no activity) to 9 (maximum activity). The number reveals at which magnetic latitude you have a chance of seeing an Aurora.

For example with a Kp of 6, polar lights are potentially visible at latitudes of up to 54.2, which includes Minneapolis (55.1) or Stockholm (56) in the northern hemisphere.

Magnetic Latitude

For more details on how this works and to find the magnetic latitude of your city, please visit the NOAA / Space Weather Prediction Center. They also have clickable maps; in case your city is not listed, you can simply click your location to get your magnetic latitude.

Magnetic Latitude Map

Where Can I Find Out About The Current Geomagnetic Activity?

Several websites and mobile apps can inform you about and alert you to good viewing conditions in your area.

SpaceWeatherLive.com

This website translates the current data into a chance of seeing Auroral activity at high, middle, and low latitude. The site also features maps for different parts of the world.

Aurora Borealis Viewing

NOAA / Space Weather Prediction Center

Here you will find a host of Space Weather Alerts, including a chart of K-indices, graphical timelines, or Space Weather Now.

Space Weather Now

N3KL.ORG

This page also offers a nice summary of spacecraft and NOAA solar data.

Solar Data

Aurora Notifier (Android)

This app shows the current Kp-index and you can enable notifications to alert you when a specific Kp-index is reached. Get the Aurora Notifier+ add-on to limit notifications to when it’s dark.

AuroraNotifier+

Aurora Forecast (Android)

Aurora Forecast provides a summary of the space weather data from NOAA, you can view recent plots, and see a forecast for the next couple of days. Alerts are a $1.99 premium feature.

Aurora Forecast

When Will You See Your Next Aurora?

As you see, catching an Aurora can be a science of its own. Have you ever been lucky enough to see one? Where was it and did you plan to see it?

If you enjoy nature, you should follow these nature & wildlife photographers and check out the following resources to stay safe outdoors.

Image Credits: Polarlicht by Senior Airman Joshua Strang, Magnetosphere by Aaron Kaase, Solar Cycle by David Hathaway

Ads by Google

3 Comments - Write a Comment

Reply

Rob H

I’m confused about the statemant “This winter is one of the best times to see polar lights.” as I’ve heard the same for the past 2 winters, indeed 2 years ago I went dog-sledding in Feb in the Yukon partly because of the heightened possibility of seeing the aurora (didn’t!). My reasoning was that we were not far short of the arctic circle, away from city lights and they get a lot of cloudless nights. Unfortunately they were experiencing unusually warm conditions, only about minus 10C, cloud cover preventing it getting much colder (but as we were sleeping in tents at least we were a bit more comfortable!)
Some places provide a local text message service to alert tourists that the aurora is visible. It may only last a few minutes.

I have seen the aurora from Iceland 22 (?) years ago and Kiruna in Sweden about 12 years ago.
In Kiruna we were in the Sauna so had to run outside (naked at a temperature the wrong side of minus 20C so we didn’t hang around too long!) to see a fabulous display (weak displays are green, the best include more colours and are very dynamic, a still photo doesn’t do it justice. )

Two years ago the Aurora was seen from North of England and there are historic reports of the most powerful displays being visible in the tropics but seeing them as far South as England is rare and a matter of luck. You can improve your chances in UK by getting twitter alerts of good conditions from aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk
The powerful solar wind that gives rise to the aurora originates with high sunspot activity so we get a few days warning of good viewing conditions . Incidentally the storms can cause problems with electrical power distribution and can damage electronics, especially satellites.

Tina S

That’s all true and thank you for sharing, Rob!

Sunspot activity has an 11 year cycle and the years before and after a peak are the best to see polar lights. Actually, the current peak appears to be rather weak.

Reply

dragonmouth

In the late 1960’s I happened to see an auroral display while camping in Rhode Island, US. It was mid-September. While the colors were not very vivid, the display was multi-colored. There was some shimmering.

The next time I remember seeing an aurora was around the year 2000 peak. The East Coast of the US all the way down to the Carolinas was supposed to see some kind of display. I saw the entire sky gradually turn red over the span of an hour and then fade to black/midnight blue.

I might have seen aurora at other times but apparently it was not vivid enough to be memorable. Interestingly, I spent some time in the Acrtic and never saw aurora there.

Your comment