The Northern Lights, known also as aurora borealis (and aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere), 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?
Short answer? The sun.
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 indicate the potential to see the northern lights.
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 expect 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.
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.
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, anywhere along the south shore of Lake Superior is optimal:
- Whitefish Point
- Pictured Rocks
- Big Bay
Photographing the Northern Lights
The following advice comes from Michigan Tech alumnus Jeremiah Baumann '10 who has actively chased the northern lights in the Keweenaw since 2006.
When it comes to photographing the northern lights, you will find photographers tend to find their own style and approach to capture that perfect photo.
The biggest misconception is that you need to have the most-expensive, high-end equipment to get the job done. The reality is that you only need two pieces of equipment to get started: a camera and a tripod.
Using a Traditional Camera
If you're going out to hunt for the lights with a traditional camera, you are giving yourself the best option for a truly remarkable photo. Prior to heading out, get your equipment together and research the best settings (depending on your camera) to capture the moment.
Before you head out to the backwoods, prepare some of your camera settings to save time, hassle, and potential error of messing with your camera in the dark. Set your camera to manual mode for full control.
Begin with an ISO somewhere between 800–3200. The better your camera performs in low light, the higher your ISO can go; the higher you go, the more grain you'll see in your photos. FYI: You'll have to play with this when you're out in the field.
Open up your lens as much as it will go to let in the light. This means the largest aperture your lens will go. For some, that might be f/5.6; for others that could be f/2.8.
Dialing in the perfect shutter speed becomes more complicated depending on what the northern lights are actually doing. If the aurorae are moving quickly, you'll need a shorter shutter speed of around 5–10 seconds. If they are slower moving, you might be able to capture around 15–30 seconds. Realize that at longer shutter speeds, you'll start to have star trails and a smoother look to the lights. This really comes down to personal preference and the conditions.
When you are finally out in the field, you'll need to set your camera to have a focal point of infinity. The easiest way to do this is to flip your lens into manual focus mode. By turning the focus ring until the lens reads infinity, you are going to set yourself up for a clean and crisp shot.
When hunting the northern lights with traditional camera gear, you need the basic equipment of a tripod and a camera. Done? Here are some other items to increase your odds.
When it comes to long exposure shots (i.e., capturing stars at night) avoid inevitable camera shake at all costs. One way to do this? Purchase a remote trigger. This can be a wired or wireless device that allows you to take photos without manually pushing the shutter button on the camera. The result is less camera shake and overall camera movement. Don't want to use a trigger? Just set the camera's automatic timer.
When you've put in all the time to chase down the lights and you're out in the middle of nowhere, the last thing you want to see is a low battery indicator. Temperature changes, long exposures, and your screen all factor into battery longevity. Have extra batteries with you. Pro tip is to keep the extra battery close to your body (if you're in cold weather), so it stays warm and ready to go should you need it.
Using a Mobile Device
Your journey to capturing the northern lights doesn't have to be an expensive one. If you are just starting out, there is no reason to spend a lot of money on new gear.
In fact, you probably have a device that is capable of taking some amazing photos already—your smartphone or tablet. To be successful, you're going to need a device tripod and a camera app that gives you full control of your device.
There are a lot of ways you can secure your device. The simplest is to buy a cheap phone tripod. Some even come with a Bluetooth remote for photo capturing.
Are these devices worth it? Definitely. Can you still take photos without one? You bet!
If you don't want to invest in a device tripod, find some item to rest your phone on/against to keep it steady. With long exposures, the more movement to your device, the more blurry your photo.
To use your device for capturing aurora borealis, you need to be able to adjust the manual settings on your camera. This means if the standard app on your phone/tablet doesn't allow you to do this, you'll need to find another option. The best camera app option by far is from Adobe.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC for Mobile (iOS/Android) gives users an amazing camera experience without a paid Creative Cloud subscription. Just create a free Creative Cloud account, turn on professional mode inside the app, and you now have total control over your device's camera. If your device has multiple cameras, it will even let you choose which one you want to use (e.g., wide angle vs. telephoto/zoom).
Once you are comfortable using this app, just follow the same settings listed for those with traditional cameras above, and you'll be capturing the lights in no time!
Trial and Error
Ultimately, you have to practice and get comfortable with making adjustments depending on the conditions. Some nights I've gone out and had amazing results. Other nights, I've gone out and done the exact same thing to come back with a memory card full of disappointing photos. The more you try the more comfortable you'll get.
If you're like me, you'll pick up new toys like a headlamp (so you can see where you are going or if you drop a lens cap), a timer remote (for automation to your shutter release), or high-tech hacks to keep you and your gear warm.
The chase to capture aurora activity is an amazing photographic adventure.