Right now, there’s huge excitement among those of us who hunt for the aurora borealis, also called the northern lights. The lights are historically at their most frequent and spectacular when the sun reaches the peak of its 11-year cycle of activity. This peak is known as Solar Maximum, and NASA is predicting it for the autumn of 2013. NASA’s prediction is based in part on the number of sunspots originating on our star’s surface and, as the name would suggest, Solar Maximum is when the frequency of sunspots peaks.
Senior NASA scientists have predicted that the current period of solar maximum activity will reach a new peak in December affording travelers to the far north the best possible conditions for seeing the Northern Lights in the next decade. The intensity and frequency of Northern Lights activity is governed by a solar cycle that lasts for 11 years and the point of a “solar flip” is the one at which the conditions for viewing the lights (also known as the aurora borealis) would be at their best. The current period of solar maximum activity has already had one peak – towards the end of 2011 to early 2012 and for the past two winters there have been reports of spectacular sightings involving the full range of colors associated with the phenomenon. With the second peak now coming at the end of this year, strong sightings are set to continue this winter and into the winter of 2014-2015. All of this is great news for travelers who are planning to travel to Northern Lights destinations as the experts have now accurately predicted the peak of the most intense period of activity for the next 11 years. With scientists now putting a date to the peak of the solar max, there is no better time to visit our top northern lights destinations and we are seeing a huge increase in the number of people contacting us that want to get a glimpse of this incredible phenomenon.
Viewings of the northern lights are never guaranteed even at times of a solar maximum as cloud cover inevitably prevent you from seeing the show. We suggest that you allow yourself at least 3-4 days dedicated for northern lights viewing. The longer you allow yourself in the aurora borealis region, the greater your chances of a viewing. Planet Earth Adventures is an Alaska travel company that specializes in tours to view the aurora. In Alaska, we recommend Fairbanks as the ultimate place to see the lights. Located about 359 miles north of the Anchorage, Fairbanks is located under the aurora oval. Some good spots for lights-viewings as both are behind the University of Alaska near Ester & Murphy Domes; Cleary Summit and Chena Hot Springs which are all located away from any detracting artificial lights. Many companies offering northern lights tours have recorded a surge in demand for trips during the period of solar maximum and many have expanded their itineraries.
What are the Northern Lights?
Displays of the Northern Lights occur when solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and on impact emit burning gases that produce different colored lights (oxygen produces green and yellow; nitrogen blue). The scientific term for the lights is the aurora borealis (named after the Roman goddess of the dawn). A similar spectacle in the southern hemisphere is known as the aurora australis.
Where can I see them?
The aurora borealis occurs in an oval shaped area located above the magnetic pole. The best sightings are within the “aurora oval” (rather than at the pole itself), and away from artificial light and moonlight.
The oval rotates with the sun, and it may grow and shrink in size considerably in only a matter of hours. The most spectacular displays occur in the northern parts of the following areas: the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, Finland (including all of Greenland and Svalbard), Alaska, Canada and Russia.
When is the best time to go?
Displays of the lights are notoriously unpredictable and cannot be forecast in advance. In the northern hemisphere, the aurora season runs from late September or early October to late March. The lights may be seen at any time during this period, but late October, November, February and March are the best bets.
Displays are governed by an 11 year cycle and are at their most dramatic during times of high solar activity, such as now, but sightings can be recorded at any time. It is impossible to guarantee a viewing even during a period of solar maximum but if the sky is cloudy, the lights will be concealed. For more information about Northern Lights Tours, call us at (907) 717-9666 or click the link below.