Science

Aurora viewing in Alaska is expected to be good this winter — and even better next year

Those on the hunt for an exciting northern lights display may be in luck this winter thanks to changing solar winds.

Next year and the year after might be even better in terms of aurora borealis activity and brightness, according to Donald Hampton, research associate professor at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute.

“It all starts with the sun,” Hampton said.

Here’s what we can expect and how you can catch a great northern lights show.

Aurora outlook

Similar to how a cup of tea on a windowsill shows steam in the light, the sun has a constant stream of particles coming off of it, known as solar wind, Hampton said.

“That’s what really drives the aurora,” he said.

The two main ingredients for the aurora are solar wind and earth’s magnetic field, Hampton said. Earth’s magnetic field captures that solar wind and from there, after a few other processes, the world gets the aurora borealis.

[How to photograph the northern lights]

Here’s where this year comes into play. The sun also has a magnetic field that reverses every 11 years, he said. As the sun does that, the solar wind starts to change, Hampton aid.

During the change, sometimes the wind can come out in big bursts, known as coronal mass ejections, or solar storms.

“What that means is during those periods when it’s changing, you actually get the best conditions for aurora,” Hampton said. “Because you get these storms that come through.”

While the sun is reversing its magnetic field, it also gets what are called sunspots — dark spots on the sun — which are related to the areas where solar storms come off the sun, Hampton said.

Periods with more sunspots can translate to very active and bright auroras, he said.

“We’re rolling back into where we’re starting to get a few sunspots again,” Hampton said. “And now we’re starting to see not only the regular aurora, but also these storms that come along and that’s what makes people excited.”

Hampton said that in 2019 and 2020, tourists seeking out the aurora may have been disappointed. But by 2024 or 2025, there should be aurora every two to three days over central Alaska plus many more large storms, which means the aurora should be easier to view farther south in places like Anchorage or even Southeast Alaska.

Amy Stratman of North Pole runs a series of social media accounts called Aurora Notify, followed by tens of thousands of people seeking updates about the aurora.

She began notifying her friends of the aurora in 2009 while she was up late at night with her newborn son. From there, she started a Facebook group, a Twitter account, website and aurora texting service.

“There’s something about the aurora that’s just so special,” Stratman said. “I don’t think words can really describe it too much. When you see it, you just feel so exhilarated and happy. It’s just so beautiful.”

[A special sensation in the sky: The rare red aurora]

Planning ahead

Since the sun rotates every 27 days, you can probably expect something good to come roughly a month after a nice display, Hampton said. There are multiple websites where you can look back on what the aurora was doing the previous month, and consulting that calendar could be a good way to plan a trip or rent a cabin, he said.

“If there was a place in the sun that was producing a lot of high speed or very dense solar wind at one point, it’s very likely it’ll be doing that 27 days later,” Hampton said.

Stratman noted that if you’re planning ahead, it’s important to plan for a range of days rather than one specific night to try to see the aurora.

When a solar storm starts coming off the sun, the particles take about three days to get to Earth, Hampton said. So, looking for announcements from the Space Weather Prediction Center about incoming solar storms is helpful.

You can predict that a couple days later might be a good night to stay up late, ready your camera and catch the display, Hampton said.

In real time

There are also a few real-time satellites that can predict about an hour ahead of earth and solar wind speeds, Hampton said, which can tell you what the solar wind is doing.

“That’s what I look at from a day-to-day basis,” he said.

If the solar wind is slow and thin, he usually just goes to bed.

If all else fails, you can also turn to others on the internet. Social media is full of testimonies about what the aurora looks like in the moment.

Aurorasaurus, put together by NASA scientists, maps out where people are seeing the lights. Visiting that site can be helpful to figure out if you’re in the right area at the right time.

There are also aurora chasers in Alaska and Canada, Hampton said. The Canadians can be especially helpful in spotting aurora displays because they’re a few hours ahead of Alaska.

Try to find ideal conditions and timing

“If you want to go see aurora, the thing you want to do is find clear skies,” Hampton said.

It’s also important to go somewhere darker — avoiding lights can provide better viewing opportunities.

The time of night for viewing the aurora matters, Hampton said. He said the best time, on average, to see the northern lights is between 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. But when it comes to big solar storms, often once the sun goes down, the aurora should be visible.

“You should be prepared to stay up late at night,” he said. “On a typical night, it’s going to be pretty late.”

On that point, Stratman suggested not making other plans for early the next morning.

Finally, Hampton said, if you’re really pursuing the northern lights, flexibility is key. Having a car and combing the weather forecast for clear skies can help: Chasing the aurora might mean driving a few hours in search of the best viewing opportunities.

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