If You've Been Waiting to See the Northern Lights, Now's Your Time
There may be more opportunities to see the northern lights in the coming years.
Looking out the tinted windows of an airport shuttle, driving down a snowy highway toward Reykjavik in the middle of the night, I saw the northern lights for the first time. It was a relatively weak display, but it was nonetheless thrilling. A murmur of excitement ran through the bus as passengers started to notice. People scooted across scratchy seats or craned for a better look from the aisle. The oohs and ahhs preceded a rapt silence as the half-full bus of sleepy travelers was awed by one of nature’s most beautiful displays.
It’s a special sight. Even for those who have seen it repeatedly throughout their lives, it can surprise and inspire awe. So, it’s exciting that we are hitting a time when experts expect more frequent and more powerful sightings of the northern (and southern) lights.
That increase in aurora visibility is the result of the solar cycle. The sun goes through a roughly 11-year cycle during which the activity on its surface increases and decreases. “The sun is going to be more active, which will increase the chances of [auroral] activity,” says Elizabeth MacDonald, Space Scientist at NASA and founder of Aurorasaurus. “That activity will be a range of strengths, some of it could be larger, which will increase the aurora coming down to lower than usual latitudes. That means that the aurora will be more frequently seen from places we don't normally see it like the US-Canadian border.”
The sun is moving away from solar minimum, towards solar maximum, which isn’t a specific moment in time but the height of its increased activity during the cycle. MacDonald says that the maximum is expected somewhere in 2025.
“One really exciting thing about this Solar maximum is going to be that people's cell phones can now take pictures of aurora,” MacDonald says. “The night sky capability of phone cameras is really great, and that wasn't there or just a little bit there last solar maximum. Now, I think most people's cell phones can capture some pretty good images of aurora, and so I'm really excited about that for the possibilities of reporting and being able to help each other.”
How to see the northern lights
The northern lights are frequently seen at northern latitudes. Traveling to those regions—Iceland, Lapland, or Alaska, for instance—greatly increases your chances of seeing the spectacle. That’s particularly true in the winter months when northern latitudes experience longer stretches of darkness. You aren’t going to see the aurora when the sun is up.
“The aurora is always active very far north like Fairbanks, Alaska, and Iceland. So, if you go up to those high latitudes, there's always some activity and generally I would recommend you're also looking for clear, dark skies,” MacDonald says. “You want to check the local weather and probably spend something like four or five nights to have a good chance of seeing aurora on a couple of those nights.”
Further south, increased solar activity does not mean aurora will be overhead every night. Though, if you pay attention to forecasts, you may find a beautiful display creeping south over states like Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, Washington, and Montana, or even, on occasion, further south following a significant solar event.
To find those instances, the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has a three-day forecast that can give a sense of solar activity that may be coming in the next few days. It is useful. Though, it’s a forecast, and forecasts can change. But it gives you a base to start thinking about nights when you might be able to spot the display.
“The best warning is to wait until [solar winds] have already started impacting Earth. Then you'll see the real-time indices or indications of activity,” MacDonald says. “For instance, there could be people reporting aurora in Maine, and that would be really helpful in Minnesota. So, people look to the communities to the east of them as well, and that's where our citizen science website (Aurorasaurus) is helpful. It’s a place where you report if you've seen aurora and help other people be able to know if it's really active right now.”
One of the site’s tools, beyond crowdsourced aurora reports, is a Storm Tracker page that uses real-time data about the power of solar winds to show what you might see in the next hour. The SWPC also has its 30-minute forecast that can be used similarly. It’s harder to make travel plans around such data, but it can show if it’s time to get your gear on and head out toward dark skies right now.
There are, of course, also northern lights tours and guides you can hire in cities like Reykjavik; Abisko, Sweden; Fairbanks, Alaska; or other northern cities that welcome tourists searching for a glimpse of the aurora. There is never a guarantee that you’ll see the aurora on any given night, whether you’re on a tour in the Arctic Circle or hoping to catch a rare southern appearance outside Des Moines. But the solar cycle is making it a great time to pay attention if you’re ready to cross the northern lights off your bucket list.