The Northern Lights are a magical experience that can’t fully be understood until you see them for yourself. Even Alaskans accustomed to viewing them on clear winter nights will rush outside at a first sighting, sometimes yelping so the neighbors don’t miss out. The lights are sporadic and unpredictable — they can disappear in a moment or last for hours. Seeing the image of the lights waltzing across the sky will stay with you forever.
What are they?
The Northern Lights used to be a mysterious event before modern science. Native American tribes once believed they were spirits of the animals they hunted.
The aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged subatomic particles (electrons and protons) from the sun as they enter the earth’s atmosphere. Solar flares, natural eruptions of intense high-energy radiation from sunspots, are blown toward the earth by solar winds. Normally, the charged particles are largely deflected by the earth’s magnetic field. But the magnetic field is weaker at the poles and, therefore, some particles enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles, emitting light.
The aurora generally occur between 50 and 400 miles above the earth’s surface and shine beautiful colors: green, pink, red, purple, and white. Sometimes they’re a single color; sometimes they reflect all at once. They can appear in faint, wispy, cloud-like patterns behind the mountains, rippling curtains undulating across the sky, or bursts of shooting rays jutting straight up. They can glow steadily for hours or dance in a shimmering display for a minute before abruptly disappearing. You can even hear them if you listen carefully, and feel them, too, as if you were a part of their austral performance. In Southeast Alaska, the most common color is green, although red and purple can be seen, too.
A note to photographers: the color of the Northern Lights can change depending on the density and altitude of the aurora. The camera can pick up even the lightest tone of color not visible to the unaided eye.
“Sometimes the Northern Lights might look like faint cloud, but your camera will still pick up shades of green,” says Barrett Hedges, a renowned photographer who owns and operates BearHead Studios in Skagway.
In the North, the lights are called the aurora borealis and in the south the lights are called the aurora australis. Because the solar energy is diverted to the earth’s magnetic sphere, which channels the energy to the poles, the aurora typically occur simultaneously at the north and south poles, with similar shapes and colors.
Where to see them
In the northern hemisphere, the best places to see the Northern Lights are in remote regions with little light pollution, particularly Alaska and Canada. Barrett says that Fairbanks and Denali National Park are two great options because of their proximity to magnetic north and the ring around the pole. “However, it is possible, and even common,” he says, “to see the lights in other parts, including Southeast communities like Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway.”
Northern Lights behind the Sawtooth Mountains near Skagway.
When to go
The lights occur all year long, but there are two conditions that must be met for you to actually see them: It must be dark and the skies must be clear. It is generally best to look for the Northern Lights in the winter in areas that are least likely to have cloud cover. The best time of the year to see the lights is between September and April.
If you’re taking a cruise to Alaska you may have the chance to see the Northern Lights. Barrett has seen the lights a couple of times in Skagway while at a friend’s house for midnight bonfires.
You can check out the KP Index, the aurora prediction chart, to judge if staying up is worth it (anything greater than a 4 is good). The lights can commonly be seen anytime ranging from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Also know that activity is cyclical and follows the solar cycle (based on the number of sunspots on the sun, which emit the solar flares), which peaks roughly every 11 years. The next peak period is 2024, so activity will be less frequent, although not completely out of the question.
Photographing the aurora
Barrett’s process for getting the best photographs of the Northern Lights is waiting, waiting, and more waiting. The first step to his process is to check the aurora forecast prediction chart. The forecast chart ranges from 1 to 10, with 10 being essentially certain that the Northern Lights are out in your area. However, the index can change at a moments notice and some of the best shows he has seen have been on nights when the forecast was as low as 2.
Barrett recommends using a tripod to steady your camera. He shoots with a Nikon D5 set to a long exposure. He also suggests using a remote trigger so you can avoid accidently bumping into your camera.
Getting the best photo can be a challenge. Generally, you will want to set your camera to manual mode and set your ISO to between 800-1600. You can start with your aperture at its widest setting (usually about f/3.5 on most common lenses – aperture is shown as a ratio, so f/3.5 is wider than f/22). and your shutter speed at about 10 seconds. If the photo comes out too dark, decrease the shutter speed.
Make sure to protect your camera if it’s cold outside. The cold itself won’t really bother it, but condensation can form when you bring it inside. It’s good practice to protect equipment on frigid evenings by removing the battery and memory card from the camera before putting it in a sealed plastic bag until it warms up to room temperature.