Even the smallest showing of northern lights in Alaska is an awe-inspiring experience. Watching colorful ribbons wave across the night sky is a natural wonder that’s beautiful to behold the first time or the 100th time. The bite of bitter cold and weariness of early hours disappear. It’s something everyone should experience.
Unfortunately it sometimes feels like these lights only show up at inconvenient times. Good aurora forecasts seem to be accompanied by clouds, bitter cold, or a full moon. Seeing the northern lights, even with the most diligent planning, is never 100 percent guaranteed. But there are a few measures you can take to increase your odds of seeing northern lights in Alaska.
Aurora are caused by electrons from the sun hitting the oxygen and nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere. These collisions occur year round, but aurora viewing is mostly possible from the fall through spring in Alaska because there is too much light in the summer.
September, October, and March offer the best chance to see aurora because of the spring and autumn equinox. During the equinox the earth’s axis aligns at the best angle for the magnetic field to receive the sun’s particles, “opening the door for solar wind energy to flow in and spark northern lights,” writes Dr. Tony Phillips.
Luckily, it’s also warmer in fall and spring than the dead of winter!
It’s possible to see the northern lights from basically anywhere in Alaska. Generally, the farther north the better.
There’s a ring called an aurora oval that circles both the earth’s north and south poles. Viewers have the best chance of seeing the aurora if they’re under this band. The high energy band makes a swath across northern and interior Alaska. Driving north along the Dalton Highway will put you in the heart of this band, but even getting to Fairbanks will greatly increase your chances compared to looking for aurora near Anchorage.
Chena Hot Springs is a popular place to see aurora because visitors can soak outside in the warm water and look up at the light show in comfort.
The forecast isn’t useful for planning an extended trip, but if you’re looking a few days or weeks in advance the forecast can be a valuable tool. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute publishes an aurora forecast that predicts activity up to 27 days out.
Explore Fairbanks also has an aurora tracker that combines data from the Geophysical Institute with weather forecast and daylight hours.
Even with all the planning in the world, an aurora trip can be foiled by clouds or inactive lights. But the only way to have a chance at seeing the greatest light show on Earth is getting out and trying it!