[UPDATE: December 15, 2010 from University of Alaska aurora forecast center: "A solar event occurred on Dec 14th that may produce auroral displays greater than our auroral forecast index 4, sometime after midnight (0836 Greenwich time) on the 16th of Dec. This means the shock may reach Earth sometime around midnight on Dec 15 in North America. Depending on the character of the disturbance following the shock, viewing may be good on the night of the 16th and 17th."
The Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis are among nature’s most spectacular displays. And we here on Earth are in for a treat. Some of the best auroral displays are headed our way – starting in September.
Actually, Alaskans have already had a sneak preview (Aug. 3-4) of what’s likely to be in store for aurora-watchers this year; at least two major light shows have already occurred in August – a time generally considered too early in the year, because the summer days are still rather long then, in the northern climes. The pattern tends to repeat itself every month or so. National Geographic posted spectacular new aurora photos taken in September.
What’s happening? Scientists are very excited that sunspot activity seems to be picking up on the Sun, after a “quiet” period of several years. The last major flare-up happened in 2000-2002. It’s been tapering off since then – until now.
When solar flares kick up, they send a lot of energy Earth’s way. They create an electrical storm that – driven by solar winds – that tends to congregate in rings around Earth’s north and south magnetic poles. (To our Intra-Galactic readers: Jupiter and Saturn also have auroras.)
The Aurora Australis can be every bit as compelling as the Aurora Borealis, but it is generally can be seen only over Antartica – and during different times of the year than the Borealis version.
Prime Aurora Borealis viewing season begins in September, and should last through April. But the best times to catch it are in September and March, because the skies are usually clearer, and the temperatures better suited to being outside viewing the lights after midnight – when they tend to come out.
The displays vary in intensity night to night, depending on what the Sun is sending our way, and sometimes during the strongest auroras, they can be seen as far south as Seattle, Chicago and northern Europe.
But where are the best places, the most reliable sites, to watch them? I wanted to give you something more specific to make travel plans around, than just merely saying “Alaska” “Canada” or “Scandinavia”. Here then are ten of the absolute best places on Earth to view the Aurora Borealis. A big factor in choosing what went on this list was how realistically you can get to them in winter:
1. Fairbanks, Alaska. More than anyone other place in Alaska, Fairbanks seems to be best-positioned for aurora-viewing. Though not the only town in Alaska, for sure, with aurora-viewing possibilities, it is the easiest one to get to from September to April. At least 200 nights a year, the aurora puts on a display above Fairbanks. Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t always cooperate – it’s often cloudy or foggy. But there are places a short drive north of the city, where the skies are unobstructed most nights. I caught them one unforgettable night at Chena Hot Springs. (Anchorage and Juneau are usually overcast; Remote Barrow is so far north, the aurora rings are often south of it.) Fairbanks is also home to the University of Alaska’s outstanding aurora forecasting center.
2. Haines and Skagway, Alaska. These two closely related cities enjoy much better weather than the state capital, just 90 miles south in Juneau. They are accessible by roads most of the year, and even by Alaska ferries. Each is a lovely area to visit, with plenty of natural wonders to gawk at, day or night.
3. Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Because it is the capital of the Yukon, Whitehorse has an airport, so access to it is better than, say, airport-less Skagway to the south. But there can be light pollution right in the city. A few areas outside of town, including at least one year-round hot springs resort, enjoy dark, clear skies. Whitehorse also has a Yukon aurora forecasting center, and tour operators who specialize in aurora packages.
4. Dawson City, Yukon Territory. Dawson, the old gold rush town, is perfectly located for aurora viewing. It is just a long slog to get there, in the dead of winter. The Klondike Highway from Whitehorse is kept open year-round, and if you can get there, you can stay warm drinking Sour Toe cocktails at the Sourdough Saloon (a shot of whiskey from a bottle with a real human toe in it!). Also accessible from Fairbanks, 1,000 miles away, via dogsled. I’m not kidding.
5. Yellowknife, North West Territories. Another potentially tough one to get to in the worst of winter, Yellowknife is at least perfectly positioned under the aurora ring most nights. As the capital of the NWT, it also has an airport with daily service from six other Canadian cities, and connections from the U.S.
6. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Never heard of it? Kangerlussuaq is the site of Greenland’s international airport, and is served by winter-time flights from Keflavik, Iceland and Copenhagen, Denmark. Kangerlussuag has a surprisingly stable climate (warm dry summers and cold clear winter days). With around 300 days a year under cloudless skies, Kangerlussuaq is one of the best places in the world to view the northern lights. There’s only one hotel in town; book ahead, or you may be mushing to Nuuk (formerly Godthab) for the nearest facilities.
7. Keflavik, Iceland. When its volancoes aren’t spewing ash, and its economic and banking system not collapsing, Iceland’s capital can be a compelling winter stopover. Northern Lights viewing here is often quite spectacular, especially from one its natural hot springs pools.
8. Tromso, Norway. Talk about being on top of the world; Tromso is pretty much it. Located on the extreme northern tip of Norway, it enjoys an ideal position under the aurora. It doesn’t always enjoy the best weather, however. But it does have regular air service from Oslo, and a really active and well organized winter tourism industry. If you don’t like staying up past midnight to view the aurora, Tromso may be for you; the locals say that from November to April, the Northern Lights come out as early as late afternoon.
9. Murmansk, Russia. Just a short hop by air from Moscow or St. Petersburg, Murmansk has a great location for Northern Lights viewing. The largest city north of the Arctic Circle, Murmansk is just not well-known, or as easy to get to as some others on this list; but it does have a year-round ice-free port. On the Kola Peninsula, where Murmansk is located, it is pitch-dark, day and night, for six full weeks days during the middle of winter. Perfect for aurora-viewing.
10. Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. This is the location of the original Ice Hotel and Ice Bar (Chena Hot Springs has one, as well as Quebec, Norway, Finland, etc.). The 2010/2011 winter marked the 21st consecutive year of the Ice Hotel building process (closed during summer, for understandable reasons; it melts). The operators were looking for hardy volunteers to help build it. If you can’t make it there in person, hey, they have a webcam!
August 30, 2010
[To read more of my stories about the aurora, meteor showers and other celestial wonders, check out these links: