Frequently Asked Questions about the aurora
What is the best place to see the aurora? Will the aurora be out tonight? And what time? These are the most common questions.
The best place is anywhere under the aurora oval where the weather is clear and the space weather data is good.
The time is anytime its dark. The aurora, on a typical night is normally seen after midnight due to the position of the earth. When there is a geomagnetic event such as a CME or a CHHSS, the time to see the aurora could be anytime it is dark, sunset to sunrise. So the answer to “What is the best time to see the aurora?” is when the data is good and the sky is dark.
So what time then?
When the data is good. If you do not follow data at all, and are not following our facebook group or other online sources, then if you had to pick a time to go out, you should go out about 10 or 11pm and stay out until 4am. If you give up after 30 minutes, then you are going about this wrong.
Should I chase the aurora?
You chase the aurora when the weather is poor at your location, terrain or light pollution in the way, or when you need to go further north to see a very low on the horizon aurora. Otherwise, pick a good spot and stay there. Let your eyes adjust to the dark. Change locations only if you are bored or want a different view. Do not drive around hoping to find the aurora. The aurora is 60-200+ miles up in the air. Driving 10 miles to a different spot with the same view of the sky will not improve your chances unless there is something hindering the view, like light pollution.
Can I see the aurora while driving?
Yes, if the aurora is bright enough or there is no or little light pollution.
Dim your dashboard lights to help your eyes adjust.
What are the chances that the aurora will be out over the area I am visiting?
Chances are very high that they will be seen, if the weather is clear enough and you are in the typical aurora zone. Sometimes the aurora will be faint to the naked eye, and sometimes brilliant. You watch and wait patiently. You can watch for posts in the facebook group, learn how to read the space weather data, watch the webcams, get personal advice from someone with space weather knowledge, or go out with a tour guide. Space weather is a bit complicated, but you can learn it! Having an app on your phone isn’t going to give you results you seek unless you can read space weather. Kp levels are not aurora alerts or sightings. If you have success using an aurora app, and no nothing about space weather, then you saw the aurora because there is always a good chance of seeing the aurora every night under the aurora oval.
For areas in the aurora zone, you may see some advice where it suggests to stay 3 or more nights for a percent chance of seeing aurora. The aurora is actually out almost every night. It is rare that the aurora is not out. Sometimes it may be low on the horizon and faint. Sometimes it will be out only a few minutes, and sometimes all night long. You will see the aurora if you are awake, away from light pollution, the clouds are not covering the aurora, and your eyes have adjusted to the dark. You may have to drive away from city lights or cloudy skies.
Many websites and apps take into consideration the weather when giving a percentage of seeing the aurora. Please ignore the earth weather and only follow space weather. Earth weather can change, the clouds can open up, or you can drive away from the poor weather. Many people have missed the aurora because their app said 9% chance (or any number) of seeing aurora. The aurora “chances” were excellent, but it was partly cloudy. Don’t miss the aurora because of an app or because of a cloud that was in the sky hours before.
Where should I go to see the aurora (city, state, country)?
Anywhere in the area the aurora oval is over. On a typical day, the aurora oval surrounds the polar regions. Northern Canada, interior and northern Alaska, and northern Europe and Russia. In the southern hemisphere, the southern tips of Australia, southern tip of New Zealand, and Antarctica. On the days with a higher Kp level forecast, the aurora oval dips down further, and southern Canada and all of Alaska can see the lights. An even higher Kp level forecast, and the aurora oval encompasses much more of the earth, and many US states would be able to see the aurora, as well as many parts of Europe.
Where should I go to see the aurora in the city or area I am visiting?
Go to an area with little or no light pollution. Face north. Facing north, have no obstruction blocking your view, such as trees, mountains, buildings, cities, etc. See the Where to Go for details.
What Kp level do I need at my location?
Northern locations in the aurora zone only need Kp 0. Further south is when one needs to know the Kp level, combined with other space weather data. Here is a map of the general idea of what Kp level you need. Always go one level lower than what the chart says, so you will not miss the aurora. Remember Kp level is the PAST 3 hours, not current activity. It is also NOT an indicator of an aurora alert or aurora sighting.
Here is the Kp level map from NOAA Space Weather. Find your location and determine the Kp level generally needed for your area.
Europe and Russia
Australia and Antarctica
South America and Antarctica
What is light pollution?
Light pollution is artificial light in the night sky. Excessive, misdirected, obtrusive, and unnecessary use of light. When it is cloudy or foggy, light pollution becomes worse, as the light reflects off the water particles. This is called sky glow, or reflective light pollution. When a light is spread out, it is called light trespass. All forms of light pollution may hinder your ability to see the aurora, depending on the brightness of the aurora. Light pollution may also affect your eyes adjusting to the darkness. For more info see Darksky.org To find an area with less light pollution you can use a light pollution map. Generally speaking, if you can see the sky full of stars easily, you are in a good location.
What time of the night should I head out to see the aurora?
Anytime it is dark. A more detailed answer is when the space weather data is good, or when the earth rotates and the aurora oval is over your area. A typical aurora, the time is near midnight. During a geomagnetic storm, it could be at any time it is dark. The aurora comes out after you give up (Murphy’s Law). The aurora can last til the sun rises. If you wait to go out til later during a storm, you may miss the beginning of the aurora. If you go out too early on a typical night (with no storm) you may be waiting a long time. If you follow the space weather data, you will have an idea when to go out.
What is the earliest time you have seen aurora being reported to ABN or what you saw yourself? 4:15pm in Fairbanks, Alaska. It is dark in the winter that early. BE READY when it is dark, we always say!
What is the latest you have seen the aurora being reported? 9:45am, when the sun rises, Fairbanks Alaska in the winter!
Can I see the aurora on my Alaskan cruise?
Only if your cruise is during the time of year where it is dark, and there is high aurora activity (a higher Kp level or geomagnetic storm. Although it is possible further south, such as Ketchikan, you are highly unlikely to see the aurora in May, June, and July in Alaska due to the midnight sun. Your best chances of seeing aurora will be to cruise in August and hope for a storm. The same answer is valid for Norwegian or other northern cruises.
I am coming to Alaska in May. Can I see the aurora?
You can see the aurora in May if there is a strong storm and you are in the Anchorage area or further south such as Juneau. It will be limited due to the hours of darkness. Do not plan your aurora dream trip in May, June, or July. Check the area where you are traveling and know when the midnight sun will be seen, then avoid that time.
Should I choose to go to Tromso, Norway or Fairbanks, Alaska USA to see the aurora? What about Yellowknife, Canada?
Whichever location you want to visit is where you should go. The aurora is seen equally from those locations. If you are traveling at the last minute, go where the weather forecast is clearest. If you need to plan in advance, look at historical weather patterns during the time you plan on traveling. The aurora forecast is worldwide, and not localized. The aurora may or may not be seen because of the space weather data, not from a location on earth (a location in the aurora zone).
Can you tell me/ text me/ call me when the lights are out, so I can hop out of bed and see them?
You need to be ready at all times when the aurora forecast is good. You cannot be asleep. You cannot be in pajamas and the car is cold, and you have to warm it up. You cannot be in a hotel room surrounded by security lights, or downtown with no chance of seeing the aurora without driving. You might miss the lights. Be ready. If you are in a location to see aurora from your bedroom, immediately look outside when you get a message or see a post. There are countless stories of people missing the aurora because they couldn’t, didn’t, or whatever, get out of bed.
Can you see the aurora if the moon is out?
Of course you can. What about the full moon? Yes you can. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be seen. You may not get the full effect of a faint aurora like you can of a moonless night. Photos are easier to take with the moonlight. The darker the sky, the harder it is to photograph the aurora if you do not have experience with manual photography or night sky photography.
When is the best time to see the aurora?
You can see the aurora anytime of the year that it is dark. In the polar regions, it does not get dark in the summer. Therefore, you can see the aurora between mid-August to mid-April. You may have read something about the “season” being specific dates. The dates mentioned are for avoiding the twilight in that particular area. This is important for aurora tour guides, as they want you to see the aurora, and not the midnight sun. However, if you are traveling in the aurora zone right before or after “the season”, you can still see the aurora about 2 weeks before and after “the season” begins and ends. You might not be able to hire an aurora tour guide specifically. Just be awake during the short amount of time it is dark (or close to dark). Light pollution is not a factor during this time, as the sky is a little light from the position of the sun.
You can see the aurora year round if you are further south where it gets dark at night and there is high aurora activity. An example would be Calgary, Alberta, northern Maine, or Duluth, Minnesota.
What causes the aurora? Activity from the sun. Energetic charged particles from the magnetosphere.
What is the altitude of aurora?
The bottom edge is typically at 60 miles above the earth and goes higher than 200 miles above the earth.
Should I go on a tour or try to see the aurora on my own?
If you have no experience seeing the aurora and would like to learn more about it, get photography tips, have your photo taken under the lights, and enjoy the company of others, then please take a tour. A tour also provides the safety from elements including possible hazardous driving conditions not suitable for a rental car or inexperienced winter drivers. A tour guide will take the stress off of figuring out space weather, your camera, and navigating local roads in the dark.
The rest of your trip you can enjoy chasing the lights on your own with your new found knowledge. You can also try different tour guides each night. Some have different activities to add on, such as dog sled rides, visiting reindeer, ice fishing, snow mobiles, snow shoeing, dinners, campfires, cozy fires inside the lodge, the list goes on. Be sure and get rest during the day so you can enjoy these night time activities. If the aurora is out until the sun rises, you will be glad to have rested the day before. Take the Quiz Should I Hire a Tour Guide or do it Myself?
Can you suggest some aurora tour guides that suit my needs?
Yes, there are many suggestions on this website. See Sponsors or Tours.
How and where does one go to the bathroom on a tour?
The tour guides have designated locations where they stop to use facilities. Sometimes it is a store restroom, a lodge, an outhouse, or the bushes. Be prepared and ask your tour guide if you need more help.
Is the aurora seen with the naked eye?
But I heard that cameras pick up the colors and trick tourists into thinking that that is what is seen. Is that true?
You can see all the colors brilliantly with the naked eye. A camera takes long exposure photos, so some color may be enhanced. During a big event, you can easily see all the details and bright vivid colors without the use of a camera. If you still are not sure, then look up historical auroras from decades and centuries past when there were no cameras. You can read first hand accounts of brilliant colors in the sky.
I saw online that the colors are fake. Is that true?
Some photographers greatly enhance the saturation on their photos. If you see a faint aurora, it may appear to be a faded green and not brilliant like some photos. Colors are seen with the naked eye are documented for centuries, and are not fake. The “fake” conversation is relatively new as digital cameras have become the norm.
I saw online that people are saying the aurora is white, not green. Is that true?
Either those people only saw a faint aurora or their eyes were not adjusted to the night sky. Some people see color better than others also.
Why are there more colorful auroras further south, like Michigan, or New Zealand?
Because the top edge of the aurora is being seen rather than the bottom edge. The colors are different gasses, and reds are higher up in altitude, therefore being seen from further south. Green auroras are lower in altitude.
Can I video the aurora?
Yes, if you have certain cameras. Not many cameras at this point in time are capable of filming the aurora in real time. You will need a camera with a very high ISO or the aurora will need to be extremely bright.
I have 1 million more questions, can you help?
You can ask in ABN group and have people comment with advice or join the Supporter group Aurora Tonight by ABN or BuyMeaCoffee/AuroraNotify for one on one help.
Fun links to explore:
Historical Kp levels (find the Kp level from the past)
We have a week-long trip planned for New Years 2021-22 to Fairbanks coming up shortly. This will be my second December in Fairbanks in a row trying to photograph the lights. Last year, we only saw faint Aurora on the horizon, but ended up headed home by 1:30 am every night. Obviously, we need to stay out later, and plan on doing so this time! But, I have also heard that December/January is not a great time in general for Aurora activity. This seems perplexing to me as I’ve always heard the Aurora is hard to predict. Given that our trip is already planned, and we are okay with the cold and being patient, do you think we have a shot at seeing them, or is late December really a lull period?
Thank you so much,
Answered via email
I have a trip booked for the last week of August with the idea that it’s the sweet spot of summer activities still being available yet it’s late enough that there’s a chance to see the northern lights. I know the odds are much better in the winter, but multiple websites, including yours, have told me that there’s a chance in the end of August. Well, I was just talking to the hotel I booked in Fairbanks and the front desk clerk said that there is NO CHANCE in August because it’s still light out 24/7, and stays that way until October! Obviously she lives there so I’m having trouble just writing her off as mistaken. Please tell me she’s wrong! PLEASE HELP! I’M PANICING! Our trip is in 3 weeks and I have everything booked!
Crystal, Your hotel clerk is wrong. It is dark at night right now, very briefly though, but losing daylight minutes per day. Aurora odds are not better in the winter, there is simply more dark hours in the winter, therefore making the time to view it possibly longer. The aurora is actually present every night of the year, but can’t be seen unless it is dark, and depending on the strength, the position in the sky. The aurora is typically seen around midnight, and into the wee hours, but when there is a solar event, the aurora may be seen longer, and sometimes as early as dinner time in the winter (as it is dark at that time). There is a lot of misinformation on the internet. My website strives for accuracy and not opinion. Just because a person lives in Fairbanks does not mean they are an aurora expert. The clerk may sleep at night, therefore isn’t aware of the dark sky and almost nightly aurora. Maybe you can show her your photos. Please do not rely on any hotel for a “wake up call”. The last week of August is perfect and you have no reason to panic, unless we get a big cloudy storm that blocks the whole sky in every direction. I love August!!! Please join the facebook group if you have not already, we have Aurora Borealis Notifications Group, and also Aurora Tonight by ABN subscription group for one on one help. ~~Amy