Think of the northern lights as nature’s fireworks. Also known as the aurora borealis, this spectacle occurs when particulate remnants of a solar storm travel from the sun into Earth’s atmosphere. When these particles interact with oxygen and nitrogen, they result in spectacular displays of colorful light in the night sky.
If you’ve been considering a trip to chase aurora, the time is now. The northern lights will be especially intense over the next two winters, getting brighter and more frequent as the current solar cycle increases in activity, peaking around 2025. Because it’s dark around the Arctic Circle for most of the winter, Alaska is a great destination for spotting the aurora. Here are six viewing tips from Alaskans in the know.
1. Select location wisely.
Darkness is important for maximizing viewing conditions. While you can see the northern lights from downtown Fairbanks or even Anchorage, you can view them better without light pollution. Don Hampton, research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, says northern exposure is preferable, away from urban centers: “You want it pitch black.”
2. Burn the midnight oil.
Peak viewing occurs around what experts call “magnetic midnight,” usually sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. Some visitors sacrifice sleep for the experience and make an adventure out of staying up all night. Others stay at hotels, such as Alyeska Resort in Girdwood and Borealis Basecamp near Fairbanks, where staff will ring your room when the aurora is active.