“Just watching it dance across the sky is mesmerizing,” said Chris Ratzlaff, 49, who lives just north of Calgary, Alberta.
Aurora chasers use a combination of planning, luck and patience to see the naturally occurring light show, even in places that aren’t often associated with the dancing waves of light. Because some of these spots are near tourist destinations, there’s plenty to do, regardless of whether the night skies offer a show.
The basic science of the aurora is the same everywhere in the world. The solar wind takes two to four days to travel from the sun to Earth, where some electrically charged particles become trapped in our magnetic field, creating ribbons of light that can be seen when we’re in the right place at the right time.
Without a doubt, the most reliable and vivid visibility for viewing the aurora borealis is near the Arctic Circle. In North America, that includes places such as Fairbanks, Alaska; Churchill, Manitoba; and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. But these remote northern latitudes can be harder to get to, more expensive and really, really cold. Plus, there are still no guarantees. The lights can be obscured by storms, or sun — there are months when it doesn’t get dark enough at night to see them.
Under certain conditions, the lights can be seen farther south, winter or summer, and for some, that’s worth the chase.
“The nice thing about this far south, we have intermittent opportunities to see the aurora in the summer when your biggest worry is mosquitoes eating at you at midnight,” said Ratzlaff, a software developer who runs the Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers, which has 145,000 members. Along with discussions, resources and tips, the page includes a map of members’ favorite viewing sites.
Emily Cook, 30, of Caro, Mich., happily drove for hours to view the northern lights this spring on a trip that took her, her grandfather and her 7-year-old daughter to cloudy Wisconsin, Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.
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“We took a chance, and it was a phenomenal show,” she said. In North Dakota, she saw the aurora primarily as “white pillars.” But at 3 am in Minnesota, “I could actually see color with my eyes,” she said. “I could see faint green, I could see a lot of pink.”
Her interest in the northern lights began after she stumbled across the Michigan Aurora Chasers on Facebook. In the 15 months that she’s been chasing, she has had both good and back luck.
“I’m okay with taking time off and going some place even if there is the chance it’s not going to happen,” said Cook, a postal worker. “I go for the destination as well as the aurora. I still get to go hiking. I still get to see wildlife. I still get to take pictures, and I still get to spend time with my family.”
According to tourism organization Explore Fairbanks, people who stay for a minimum of three days and are actively trying to view the aurora between late August and late April have about a 90 percent chance of success during their stay. Experts say a person visiting Banff National Park in Alberta for a week would have approximately a 25 percent chance of seeing them on one night.
Those odds are likely to improve — maybe even double — as the sun continues toward the 2025 peak of an 11-year solar cyclewhich often increases the sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections that can lead to more frequent northern light activity.
In planning for aurora watching, a dark sky, solar activity and local weather need to be taken into consideration.
To choose a location away from light pollution, try the interactive New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness, from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Also be cognizant of the phases of the moon, as night skies are darker around a new moon.
Alberta boasts dark sky preserves and good viewing areas in Jasper National Park, about four hours from Edmonton, as well as Elk Island National Park, about 45 minutes from the city.
You’ll want to know the minimum aurora strength, or KP number (an abbreviation for the Estimated Planetary K-index), in the place you plan to travel. In general, you’ll want a KP number of at least five.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration puts out a 27-day forecast every Monday that is mostly just an educated guess, but it’s a place to start. If KP numbers are expected to be in the upper ranges, especially over sequential days, it means that more geomagnetic activity could be possible and it might be time to book a ticket (albeit a refundable one) if possible.
“There is a benefit to some agility when it comes to this stuff,” said Robert Steenburgh, acting lead at NOAA’s Space Weather Forecast Office in Boulder, Colo.
NOAA’s three-day forecast is more reliable because it is based on what is happening on the sun at that moment, rather than what is projected to happen. Because of the time it takes for the solar wind to travel from the sun to the Earth, it’s best to think of the forecast as occurring within a 24-hour range rather than on a designated day, Ratzlaff said. If the KP numbers are low, it might be worth rescheduling the trip. If they’re high, it’s time to head for the airport.
When the three-day outlook and the local weather forecast align, aurora chasers start buzzing with excitement. They compare data from spaceweatherlive.com and write posts advising, “Pants on standby,” a cheeky way to say readers should be ready to get dressed at a moment’s notice.