Chasing Alaska’s Northern Lights

Discover Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis has awed humanity for thousands of years. As far as written history goes, the dancing glow of greens, purples and sometimes blues, reds or yellows in the night sky has inspired explorers, artists and scientists alike. While today this marvel is relatively well understood, the experience of seeing the Northern Lights in person continues to top many bucket lists of travelers from all over the world.

Every winter, thousands of Aurora Borealis chasers head to our most northern state in the hopes of catching a glimpse of this phenomenon. As with many natural wonders, seeing the lights can feel a bit like winning a lottery. Throughout your trip, you may hear stories about that jetlagged couple who slept through a showing of Aurora or those tourists who spend a week chasing the lights and never got a chance to see them. However, you can stack the odds in your favor with some planning and preparation. Below are a few tips that will help you become one of the lucky few.
Poker Flats AK NASA Goddard Chris Perry 1
Poker Flats, Alaska. By Chris Perry.

Go North

Scientifically, the Northern Lights are explained by several physical phenomena working together. For the glow to appear, solar wind — a stream of charged particles emitted from the Sun’s atmosphere — must collide with gas molecules in Earth’s atmosphere. Due to the impact of Earth’s magnetic field, these particles concentrate closer to magnetic poles, which makes Aurora much more observable in the polar regions of the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, Canada, Scandinavia and Alaska are well-known destinations for those seeking this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The likelihood of seeing Aurora Borealis increases the farther north you go. When picking the destination in Alaska, however, there are other factors to consider. The far northern parts of the state are not easily accessible and don’t offer many of the conveniences we take for granted. Fairbanks, the second largest city in the state, is a good compromise. It’s significantly farther north than Anchorage, yet it’s accessible by direct flights from the lower 48 and has plenty of lodging and dining options. To increase the odds of seeing the Northern Lights, you will also need to go during the time of the year when you have plenty of darkness. For Fairbanks that would mean visiting sometime between August and April. During the winter solstice on Dec. 21, Fairbanks gets around four hours of daylight. The closer you get to this date the more darkness you will get. If your travel schedule is somewhat flexible, you should keep an eye on the geomagnetic activity intensity as well: the Geophysical Institute provides a 27 days forecast. It isn’t exact science, but you’ll increase your odds by visiting during days with projected high activity.
Winter Solstice Sunset Fairbanks Alaska Eric AdobeStock
Winter Solstice at sunset, Fairbanks, Alaska. By Eric/AdobeStock.

Be Strategic

The best views of Aurora are typically found away from the city where there is less light pollution. It is also helpful to stay in lodging where the staff are sensitive to the appearance of the Northern Lights. Many tourists visit Fairbanks in the winter for the sole purpose of seeing the lights. Local hotels and lodgings often offer Aurora “wake-up” calls as a free service. To see the Northern Lights, you also need two factors to come together: high geomagnetic activity and clear skies. While there are no reliable ways to predict either of these a few days in advance, you can check the Geophysical Institute website for daily geomagnetic activity forecasts. Anything marked below “3” on its KP Index is hit-and-miss, anything above “4” is really promising. You can also check the Windy app for cloud coverage over your area. Using these will help you to know whether you want to stay up all night waiting for the lights or if you can go to bed early and get more sleep.
Geophysical Institute by LJEvans .gi .alaska.edu
The Geophysical Institute. By LJEvans/gi.alaska

Use Social Media

Given that Aurora chasing has become a seasonal sport, there are also a few social media accounts providing great advice and up-to-date information by the minute. Aurora Borealis Notifications Facebook group is a wonderful community where people share experiences, photos and status of Aurora around the world, with about half of its posts focused specifically on different Alaska locations. There’s also @AuroraNotify Twitter account for those who prefer shorter and more on-point messaging. Aside from social media, you can use technology and monitor for Aurora without leaving the comfort of your warm hotel room. Several free webcam streams cover Fairbanks and nearby areas — North Pole and Poker Flat — and are online nightly. If you’re worried about falling asleep, some folks run “Aurora Notifications” social media accounts with a text notification service. For a nominal fee, you’ll receive short-term forecasts and alerts when Aurora is showing. With webcams on your laptop screen and the sound on your phone on, you can cozy up under a blanket and watch your favorite TV show without worrying about missing the lights.
Northern Lights Dog Sledding Fairbanks Alaska Youli AdobeStock
Dog sledding, Fairbanks, Alaska. By Youli/AdobeStock

Stunning Photo Ops

One remarkable fact about Aurora Borealis is that even on those nights when you can barely see the lights with the naked eye you can still capture unbelievable pictures with a camera or a smartphone. Pictures taken in the dark need longer shutter speed, however, which means holding your phone or camera steady for prolonged periods of time, from several seconds to several minutes. Consider bringing a simple tripod with a phone holder. It is worth the effort, especially when the weather outside is 20 degrees below zero. Staying up to wait for the Aurora can be tiring. Regardless of the preparation, there’s also a chance the lights won’t appear during your trip. But that doesn’t mean you will not have a fun and memorable winter Alaska trip. Fairbanks offers numerous winter activities that you can work into your itinerary while you wait to see the lights — dog sledding, snowmobile tours and ice fishing are just a few examples. Make sure to schedule a few activities in advance, so you can take the most advantage of the short daylight, and enjoy all the things you would never get a chance to experience in the lower 48.

–Written by Pavel Krotkov
–Top photo is of the Northern Lights over Fairbanks, Alaska.

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