The Northern Lights, known also as aurora borealis, are a natural display of light in the northern hemisphere's night sky. Auroral displays appear in many hues—though pale green and pink are most common. Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet are also reported.
The northern lights surprise stargazers by appearing in many forms—from patches or scattered clouds, to streamers, arcs, rippling or dancing curtains. The lights move and change shape and color. Scientists attribute their vibrant colors to excited gases emitted in Earth's atmosphere; oxygen gives off the green color of the aurora.
What Causes The Northern Lights? Explained.
Short answer? The sun. The lights are caused by the interaction between the Earth's magnetic field and charged particles from the sun's atmosphere that enter the earth's atmosphere. A solar flare (energetic particles from the sun) floats through space on the solar wind, eventually penetrating the Earth's magnetic field. Electrons in the magnetic field sideswipe oxygen atoms or nitrogen molecules in the Earth's atmosphere.
The bursts of colorful light—the northern lights—are colliding particles (usually electrons) and atoms; at collision, electrons can return to their initial, lower energy state, and in the process, release photons or light particles we know as aurorae.
Forecasting Northern Lights Sightings
Aurorae happen; there's no set schedule. Often, auroras happen with just 30-minutes warning; others speculate multiple-day warnings and peg periods around the spring and fall equinoxes for increases in aurora. Kp-index readings (the global geomagnetic activity index) of six plus (6+) indicate the potential to see the northern lights.
Scientists use satellites to measure the speed and density of the solar wind, and when the conditions are right, they can predict when the Northern Lights will occur. The intensity and location of the Northern Lights can also be forecasted using computer models based on real-time data from various instruments.
Just like Earth's cycles or seasons, the sun's energy output also fluctuates on a roughly 11-year basis or solar cycle. Scientists refer to the solar cycle like a pendulum, swinging back and forth between periods of highs and lows. Forecasters expected the next solar minimum to arrive in 2019–2020—but not to worry—auroras still appear in the night's sky. It's just that "solar maximums," or peaks in the sun's activity, likely result in greater frequency of aurorae. According to one source, 2022–2027 may be the best years for aurorae sightings.
Viewing the Northern Lights
It is notoriously hard to predict catching the northern lights—they are a naturally occurring phenomenon after all—and a clear night sky is a must. Maximize your changes of seeing an aurora borealis shower by following these tips no matter your location in the northern hemisphere.
Best Time of Year
Best bet to see those green and pink nightlights? August through April—October, November, and April being peak months. Check out NOAA's three-day forecast and 30-minute forecast (or download your favorite aurora app), hope for a clear night sky, and dress warmly before heading out.
There is no set time for the northern lights, as solar flare activity can even happen before dark. To increase your chances, watch forecasts after 10 p.m. When you head out, have some patience. The best light shows may be during the most unexpected times. You may need to wait for hours or even several nights to see them. Keep in mind that the northern lights may be visible for only a short time, so it's important to be ready to capture the moment when they appear.
Best Viewing Locations
We can put this most simply: Find the darkest place you can. Activity starts in the north sky, and depending on strength, can spill overhead into the southern sky. Ideal spot? The south end of a lake or field, free of any man-made light. Dress in warm layers and bring snacks and drinks to stay comfortable while waiting for an aurora borealis shower to appear.
Favorite Local Viewing Spots
There are many great viewing locations that are not too far from Michigan Tech. Anywhere north of Houghton (over the Lift Bridge) ensures more open sky and less light pollution—perfect conditions for aurora sighting. Remember that the darkest spot you can find may be the best. There are also many great viewing locations in the Copper Country:
- Breakers Beach in Houghton (or West Point Entry)
- McLain State Park in Houghton
- Bete Grise Beach, east of Lac La Belle
- Eagle River
- Eagle Harbor
- Copper Harbor's Brockway Mountain
According to Marquette resident Shawn Malone, the best place south of the Mackinaw Bridge is Headlands International Dark Sky Park. Two miles west of Mackinaw City, this international dark sky park is one of the few dark sky parks in the country.
Once across the bridge, catching aurora borealis anywhere along the south shore of Lake Superior is optimal:
- Whitefish Point
- Pictured Rocks
- Big Bay