Watch for the Northern Lights

(Photo by Anjali Bermain)

(Photo by Anjali Bermain)

I’m actually in Alaska right now, running an Aurora Borealis tour for the Old Farmer’s Almanac. We have 86 guests, mostly from here in the Northeast, seeking the famed Northern Lights. I’ve been doing this each February or March since the 1990s.

But why, you might ask, should anyone in their right mind go to the far north in winter? The answer is that right now our planet is pretty much sideways to the Sun, which increases the chance of getting an aurora, and days and nights are becoming equalish. Moreover, it’s now the dark of the Moon – and moonlight has always been the greatest enemy of the fabled Lights.

(Some folks take cruises or such to Alaska in summer, and then mention that they never saw an aurora. We point out that up there, the summer sky never gets fully dark, so…. duh!) But if you’ve lived in our region for a long time, you’ve seen them beautifully from right here. Sadly, it has been a while. We had fabulous displays in 2001 and 2000 and 1999. That was during the last “solar max” – which was followed by the deepest absence of solar storms that anyone alive has ever witnessed, which made auroras really rare this past decade.

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One Solar Max earlier, on March 13, 1989, we had a wildly animated aurora that exploded over the Catskills and mid-Hudson Valley all night long. It filled the entire heavens, and fortunately unfolded on a clear night during the dark of the Moon.

Unlike in Scandinavia and central Alaska, where auroral curtains are often directly overhead, we normally see them in the northwest around here. They may start as a simple glow in that direction, so any time you see such a thing – well, either your neighbors have thrown a party and haven’t invited you, or it’s the first stage of an auroral display. Keep watching. The glow may simply fade out disappointingly. Or it can start becoming animated with blotches, streaks, straight lines radiating from the horizon, arches and various other abstract art fragments. As for color, it’s usually pale green or gray, but once in a long while we get a blood-red aurora, which is what happened for us in 2000.

The action starts with a giant solar storm. The culprit may be a strong X-class flare, or better yet a coronal mass ejection. Even when our solar satellites and other Sun-watching equipment detect such an outburst of high-speed solar ions, it will be at least two days before the swarm gets near enough to Earth so we can sample the material and know whether its magnetic polarity has the correct orientation to transfer its energy to Earth’s magnetosphere, to excite oxygen atoms high in our atmosphere. This is why many predicted aurorae fail to materialize: The solar detritus simply has the wrong polarity. Then, too, we need a clear night, and preferably a moonless one.

Although the current Solar Max began nearly a year ago, it has been very wimpy until very recently. The Sun started exhibiting increased storm activity this past month, so it’s a good time to get primed and psyched for possible local aurorae. Your best bet is simply to acquire the habit of glancing toward the north on any clear night, even if just when you’re walking from your car to the house. If you see an aurora, phone your friends – maybe even set up an aurora alert, a “Northern Lights hotline” like we had in Woodstock in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Such a telephone tree can alert everyone in your community who wants to see one. (I discontinued ours after several cranky spouses or “significant ogres” yelled at me when I phoned at 1 a.m.; apparently many of the folks who signed on to the hotline didn’t tell the people with whom they lived that they might get calls in the wee hours.)

I hope that next year you’ll perhaps join me in Alaska. But if not, sooner or later we will all get another good one from right here.

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