There scientific name is Aurora Borealis (Dawn of the North) but we know them as The Northern Lights. These occasional celestial shows are just one of the many benefits of living this far north. Now that the weather is getting less chilly, its will become more pleasant for sky watchers to catch a glimpse of these ribbons of lights.
WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
The Aurora Borealis is a result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. We mainly see the Northern Lights in a hue of green, but shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been reported. Like the neon light glowing on the Vegas Strip, the Earth's protective atmosphere also glows when these solar particles hit the gasses that surround our planet. with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora. So, I guess it's the luck of the draw as to what you will see.
HOW TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
The Northern Lights run on a cyclical basis. The lights actually peak every 11 years with the last peak in 2013. However, a combination of clear skies, an absent moon, and a good charge from the sun, can create a spectacular display at any time. The best place to see them is at the poles. The farther away from the North Pole you are the farther north you need to look. Here in the Upper Midwest, that means looking to northern horizon, while getting far away from the influence of city lights.
A FEW STEPS TO IMPROVE YOUR AURORA ODDS
Thanks to great research by my alma mater, The University of Alaska Fairbanks, here is a small checklist of how to approach viewing the Northern Lights. Check out their website on the Aurora research and forecast: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast
CHECK THE LEVEL OF ACTIVITY FOR YOUR AREA
First read the section on Interpreting the Aurora Forecast and select a map there that is appropriate for your area. You will see your map displayed for each of the 10 forecast levels (0 to 9). Find the levels where your location is inside the green line. For example, on the North America map, Chicago requires a 3 to see the aurora on the northern horizon and at least a 5 to see it overhead.
CHECK ACTIVITY PREDICTED FOR THE DAY OF INTEREST
Return to the main Forecast for the day of interest. Select a map that is appropriate for your area. If your location is within the green line on the equatorward side of the green and white band around the pole, you should plan on aurora watching that night.
CHECK THE SHORT TERM FORECAST
To see if the aurora will be visible from your location within the next hour, look at the "short term forecast" on the right-hand side of the display. This is a continually updated forecast, based on an actual satellite measurement, so if it shows an index 5 and you are in Seattle, Chicago, New York City, Halifax or anywhere under the green and white band, then there is aurora overhead. If the sun is down, you should go outside, away from city lights with a view of the poleward horizon and look for it. It will be most active between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
CHECK CURRENT AURORA ACTIVITY
The current aurora activity from NOAA/POES satellite is also available on the forecast site. Use it to see where there is aurora at the moment.
To plan a trip to the aurora zone, use the "Aurora Activity by Solar Rotation" (to the right on the web page). The maximum activity expected on each day is plotted there for 28 days in advance. Check the Traveler's Guide to the Aurora for when and where to travel.
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