Chasing the Amazing Auroras

The Aurora Borealis. The northern lights. Call them whatever you want, they have a sense of surrealism, mystique and supernatural element to them. I, along with a group of awesome friends were fortunate enough to witness the dance of the Auroras with our very own eyes last March. While the Aurora may be whimsical in nature and shrouded in mystery, a bit of careful planning can maximize your chances to see them live! I’ll try to outline what all you need to keep in mind when planning a trip to see the lights.

The stunning display over the Dalton Highway

The aurora is a natural light display in the sky when earth’s magnetosphere is disturbed by the solar wind, so that the charged particles present there are driven into the upper atmosphere thereby losing energy. This excitation of the particles in the atmosphere causes emission of light of various wavelengths and constitutes what we see as the aurora.

Beautiful aurora formations 

This effect is mostly predominant in the polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic), so you need to be at high latitudes to see this. Also, 90% of the time the light is very faint so going in winter (where nights are longer) and on clear nights enhances your chance of spotting the aurora. You need to be away from light pollution as well so you will need to be away from major cities as close to the wilderness as possible so as to maximize your chance of seeing them. People who research the aurora say that days near the equinoxes are best for maximizing your aurora viewing chances. So, to recap things you need to keep in mind when planning your trip are:

    • High latitude: You need to be very north or very south, the best places to see the Aurora are Alaska (Fairbanks and north are best, Anchorage and Denali if the aurora is very strong), Yukon and Northern Saskatchewan territory (Canada), Tromso, Lofoten Islands, Alta, Svalbard (Norway), Luosto, Nellim, Utsjoki, Ivalo,  Kakslauttanen (Finland), Jukkasjärvi, Kiruna, Abisko (Sweden), Reykjavik and around (Iceland), Murmansk, Siberia (Russia), and Kulusuk, Ammassalik (Greenland)

A blaze of wildfire in the sky

    • Forecast of solar storm: The intensity of the Aurora is defined by the Kp-index. If you want to see the aurora comfortably with the naked eye, you need a Kp > 5. DSLr’s in high exposure mode will be able to pick up traces of the aurora if the Kp is between 3-5, but you won’t see it yourself. Trust me, its much more majestic to see it yourself and it is definitely possible, so plan your trip accordingly. Here are some of the sites I used to monitor Kp for my trip (make sure you look at the region you are traveling to)
      3. There are some excellent Aurora notifications groups on Facebook as well, join them to get tips on upcoming solar storms.

Chandalaar Ranch (close to Fairbanks)

    • Weather/Time of the year: Auroras are most active around the equinox (Mar/September), but that doesn’t mean you can’t see them at other times (if there is a High Kp storm in December you will see them). Also essential are clear skies and the new moon. The best time to see them is with 4-5 days of the new moon. For photographers, who wish to have some moonlight to illuminate their foreground while taking photos, going closer to the full moon may work, provided there is a high Kp storm forecast.
    • It will be VERY cold: Come prepared. When we went to Alaska temperatures were around -20 to -30C. You will have to get out of the cottage or car to see the Aurora so layer up, get some good snow boots (Sorel’s are great)! Hand warmers are essential ( especially if you want to take photos.
    • Photography: Admit it, we all want a classic aurora shot for bragging rights. My two cents, get a sturdy tripod, and a F2.8 wide angle lens on a full frame camera for best results. A remote times is essential as well. Having two sets of gloves is good too, as you can do finer settings with a lighter glove but have the thicker one when you all your settings are robust and you’re just clicking away. Get a headlamp (but turn it off before taking pics and don’t annoy other photographers with it). Practice your camera settings beforehand, it’s not fun figuring out how to change ISO in the dark when it’s -30C, you should know exactly what to press. Have backup batteries as battery life is greatly reduced in the cold.

Pine trees and the Aurora

OK, that was all my research about maximizing your chances to see the Aurora. Now here is how I went about chasing them.

I went Aurora chasing on the new moon weekend closest to the Spring Equinox in 2015. We were a huge group and people flew into Anchorage from the Bay Area, Portland, Houston, Champaign, New York and Milwaukee.. Huge logistical adventure there. One of my friends missed her flight and had to get re-routed through some really crazy segments and joined us directly in Fairbanks a day late. There is a high chance you will be flying Alaska Airlines and if you have miles (Alaska/Avios) you can get some cheap redemptions for flights from the west coast and from ANC-FAI. We chose to take the slow scenic route to get up to Fairbanks though and booked ourselves on the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks. This is a full day journey, starting around 8am, and leisurely making its way into Fairbanks by 5pm.

All aboard the Polar Express

If you are lucky and get a clear day in the winter, you will be treated to some staggering views of Denali as the train meanders through a white wintery wonderland. I haven’t seen a landscape so pristinely white as this before, and Mt. Denali adds the proverbial cherry on top of the cake to this landscape. If you’re with a group, and have time to spare, I would highly recommend this.

Stunning views of Mt. Denali from the Alaska Railroad

Stunning polar scenery from the train

Once you’re in Fairbanks, check into your hotel and get down to aurora chasing. There are a couple of tours which we did and they were both amazing. Depending on how much time you have you can do one of:

1. A 3-4 hour tour close to Fairbanks: they will take you to a viewing spot about 30-40 miles out of Fairbanks and you usually stay there from 11am to 2.30/3am. Whenever you see an Aurora out of the windows in the cottage, you rush out and enjoy. I took a tour with the First Alaska tours and they took us to Chandralaar Ranch which is a great place to see the Aurora. The Northern Alaska Tour company is another good choice for tours.

The hut and the aurora

Mesmerizing display in front of Chandalaar Ranch

Auroras light up the sky

2. If you have time, go to the Arctic circle tour. These typically start around 2pm and end at 3-4am. The one we did stopped at the oil pipeline, at some viewpoints along the way where we hiked (<1 mile) to see some stunning snowy scenery and reached the arctic circle around 6pm. You also cross the frozen Yukon river where you stop and enjoy walking across the might river which is frozen solid. It’s an otherworldly experience. Then the fun starts as you drive back in bitter cold on the Alaskan highway. If luck favors you (and it showered its blessings on us) you will see an amazing display of nature’s glory as you drive back towards Fairbanks. We had luck on our side and a Kp > 6 and enjoyed an amazing theatrical display of the northern lights for close to 4-5 hours straIght. We saw some amazing formations, various colors and dizzying motion of the lights! The lights were so bright that I had to actually shoot at a much lesser ISO and shorter shutter speed in order to avoid getting a washed out sky! After stopping for countless photo ops over 3 hours and taking infinite number of pics while freezing our extremities off, we had finally had enough of our share and spent the rest of the trip admiring the aurora show from the comfort of our van.

Felt like I was watching the dark mark!

The surreal auroras emanating from behind a fence! 

Seeing the auroras live is something that you need to experience first hand. It’s hard to capture the ethereal beauty of the aurora on camera, although I’ve attempted to in the pictures in this post. But the camera can’t capture the sheer joy and bewilderment you will experience when you first see the colors on display. Hopefully this post will inspire you to go and hunt down some auroras of your own!! Feel free to contact me if you have any specific questions. Here are some more snapshots that I hope will convince you to make the trip asap!!





All images in this post are copyright and cannot be downloaded, copied or used without permission of the author.

2 thoughts on “Chasing the Amazing Auroras”

  1. Howdy! This blog post couldn’t be written much better! Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept talking about this. I am going to forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a great read. Thanks for sharing!

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