The first (and only) time Juneau native Katrina Heinz-Query remembers seeing the northern lights was on Halloween, when she was 10 years old.
“The lights are out,” her mother shouted. They watched the ethereal green and yellow dance and swirl in a circle above them, like a laser show from outer space. “That Halloween was the first time I recognized that the northern lights were something to be amazed at,” Heinz-Query says. “I can clearly remember falling in love with them, as silly as that sounds.”
Though Heinz-Query moved to Olympia a few years later, she visits Juneau often and always looks skyward on clear evenings for the aurora borealis. She is not alone; witnessing the northern lights ranks high on many locals’ wish lists. And thanks to celestial cycles, now is an ideal time to make the trip.
Over the next few years, the sun’s surface is heading into an active period, an upswing that happens every 11 years on average. Eruptions known as solar flares drive the solar wind toward the earth, intensifying the aurora and making it more visible. The storms have the potential to wreak havoc on radio waves and navigation equipment, but for aurora enthusiasts, this is good news.
The northern lights have long inspired fascination—and, for some indigenous populations, fear.
The northern lights have long inspired fascination—and, for some indigenous populations, fear. Some arctic and subarctic tribes believed the aurora caused head and neck pain. Others thought the lights were torches carried by spirits.
Modern science, of course, has a different explanation. The display is caused when electrons from the solar wind sweep through Earth’s upper atmosphere. As these charged particles collide with high-altitude oxygen and nitrogen atoms, they create the pulsing light show. The northern lights allow us to see the earth’s magnetic field, which isn’t normally visible. As the solar wind’s electrons slide along the magnetic field, they illuminate it.
It’s actually a pretty common reaction, one that we experience every day, says University of Washington electrical engineering professor John Sahr, who studies upper atmosphere phenomena using radar and is passionate about the aurora. “Basically, whenever you see a neon sign or fluorescent bulbs, you’re looking at the same process that creates the light that we see as the northern lights.”
The northern lights occur most frequently at high latitudes, in what astronomers call the “auroral zone” or “auroral oval”—places such as the Alaskan interior, northern Canada and the upper reaches of Scandinavia. Rare sightings at lower latitudes can happen if the conditions are just so and the particles of the solar wind are flung farther south. (For tips on catching the lights nearby, see "Stalking Aurora Closer to Home" below.)
Dark nights in the Alaskan interior often bring fantastic aurora displays. Located in a valley in central Alaska, Fairbanks is the ideal destination for Seattleites seeking the northern lights because it’s within the auroral oval and offers a major airport for direct flights. To increase your chances of catching the show, book a trip for around March 20 or September 22 (in 2013). “There is a slight preference for the autumn and spring equinoxes having to do with where the earth is in the orbit around the sun,” Sahr says. Apart from the slight statistical advantage of the equinoxes, the skies are at their darkest, and plane tickets aren’t at their budget-busting summertime levels.
Several Fairbanks-based companies specialize in northern lights tours and a variety of lodges and resorts provide convenient access to light-show viewing (see “If You Go” section, below).
If you travel north to Alaska or elsewhere, don’t overlook the opportunity presented along the way. For night flights across the northern United States and to Europe, Sahr recommends requesting a window seat that faces north—a tip you can use even on cloudy nights.
“You’re high enough and far enough north, above most of the atmosphere, above the clouds, with a clear view for hundreds of kilometers to the north,” he says. “I’ve seen really wonderful northern lights that way. All you need is a dark night, and even if [the magnetic field] isn’t particularly disturbed, you can see northern lights.”
IF YOU GO
With direct flights (less than four hours) from Seattle to Fairbanks, Alaska’s largest interior city makes an excellent base camp for viewing the northern lights.
Northern lights tours in Alaska are as common as whale-watching tours in the Pacific Northwest. Two of the most reputable are northern Alaska Tour Company (907.474.8600; northernalaska.com), which takes visitors on excursions north to the outpost of Coldfoot on day-long and multiday trips, featuring vehicle and airplane tours (no hiking), and including overnight stays in old-school, industrial cabins; and Go Alaska Tours, which offers a variety of all-inclusive tour packages including cabin stays, hot springs, dogsled adventures, and van, rail and airplane tours, ranging from four to eight days (goalaskatours.com).
ROOMS WITH VIEWS
Located on 280 wooded acres outside of central Fairbanks, A Taste of Alaska Lodge (551 Eberhardt Road; 907.488.7855; atasteofalaska.com; $185–$235) offers comfortable cabins away from the lights of downtown and in view of Denali. Sixty miles outside Fairbanks (and away from its lights), the Chena Hot Springs Resort (Chena Hot Springs Road, Fairbanks; 907.451.8104; chenahotsprings.com; $65–$289) provides wake-up calls for guests if the aurora is visible late at night. The Aurora Borealis Lodge (Cleary Summit area, Fairbanks; 907.389.2812; auroracabin.com; $169–$224) is situated on 2,200-foot-high Cleary Summit and boasts unobstructed views through large windows in each of the rooms.
STALKING AURORA CLOSER TO HOME
If you hope to catch the aurora borealis in Seattle, you’ll have to get lucky. Our famously cloudy skies make it tough, as does the light pollution from streetlights and buildings. But as the sun enters an active cycle, your chances of spotting the northern lights locally are higher than usual. If the magnetic field is active enough and the skies are clear, you might have a shot to catch the Van Gogh–like aurora.
“I’ve seen it from my front door step,” says University of Washington electrical engineering professor John Sahr, who lives in North Seattle. That’s rare, though, and your best chances will come by getting out of town, away from the lights. One good spot is the Tiger Mountain North trailhead (just off Interstate 90 at exit 20). The gate to the trail closes at 7 p.m., but you can still park on the road below that. Face northeast, with the mountain behind you to block the lights from Tacoma, making the sky to the north very dark.
Sahr’s suggestions for regional viewing places are other mountain peaks, where there is less air above you and a clear view to the northern horizon. He suggests Table Mountain near Mount Baker in the North Cascades and the Manastash Ridge Observatory near Ellensburg.
“Any place that’s high and dark is really what you need, with a northern view,” Sahr says. But keep in mind: “Just as a wild guess, we can expect the aurora to be visible here in Seattle two to three times a year,” he says.
The Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posts aurora “forecasts” online: swpc.noaa.gov. You can also follow the Twitter account @Aurora_Alerts for updates when the aurora is most active—although it gives a general forecast that isn’t location specific. If the skies are clear and the forecast is good, keep your eyes peeled to the north.