Northern Lights; the Aurora
Summer tourists won't have much chance of seeing the famous
Aurora Borealis, the dancing fluorescent ribbons that light up the night sky, enthralling
even "sourdoughs" (old-timers) in Alaska.
The aurora was named after the Roman goddess of dawn, and was long thought to
be produced by sunlight reflected from polar snow and ice, or refracted light much
The University of Alaska is but one of many facilities where research still
continues into the phenomenon, but so far, research seems to indicate that the aurora is
caused by radiation emitted as light from atoms in the upper atmosphere as they are hit by
fast-moving electrons and protons. In other words, energy particles from the
sun collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. The kind of atom determines the color.
It also appears that the sun has an influence: auroras become brighter, more
distinctive, and are spread over a larger area two days after intense solar activity. Two
days is the time it takes the "solar wind" to arrive.
Dirk Lummerzheim, a research professor who studies the aurora borealis
for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks explains
the present lack of northern lights this way:
“We are at the solar minimum. When solar activity dies down like this,
the aurora activity also diminishes in the north.”
Lummerzheim said that 2008-2009 was the second winter in a row the
aurora had been “quiet.” Normally, the low in the solar cycle only lasts
about a year, but he described the current solar minimum as “very long, very
Back to Top
Best Time to Watch
The "Northern Lights", at their most dazzling from December to March
when nights are longest and the sky darkest, can usually be seen even as far south as
Undulating ribbons of light may shimmer in the sky for hours, like
glowing, dancing curtains of green, yellow and orange or dark red, or magnificent veils
with a full spectrum of colors, and with the altitude of its lower edge 60 to 70 miles
above the earth.
Or the aurora may last 10-15 minutes, twisting and turning in
patterns called "rayed bands", then whirling into a giant green corona in which
rays appear to flare in all directions from a central point, and finally
The rarest aurora is the red aurora, like the one of February 11,
1958, which is still talked about today.
An Eskimo tale records that the northern lights are spirits playing
ball in the sky with a walrus skull. Another legend, calls them the flaming torches
carried by departed souls guiding travelers to the afterlife.
The scientific explanation is that the aurora is a physics
phenomenon taking place 50 to 200 miles above the Earth. Solar winds flow across the
Earth's upper atmosphere, hitting molecules of gas lighting them up much like a neon sign.
To study the phenomenon, researchers at the University of Alaska
Fairbanks shoot rockets loaded with special instruments into the aurora from a launch pad
at the Poker Flat Research Range, 30 miles
northeast of town.
Back to Top
The aurora occurs along ring shaped regions around the north and south
geomagnetic poles. The intensity of the displays vary from night to night and throughout
An intense auroral display can cause many problems on the ground, such as
intense electric currents along electric power lines (causing blackouts) and oil pipelines
(enhancing corrosion). The aurora can disturb the ionosphere and disrupt short wave
communication. Auroral discharge electrons have even damaged the electronics and solar
panels of communications and meteorological satellites, rendering them inoperable.
Because of this, a major cooperative research program, the National Space
Weather Program, studies these effects in an attempt to improve the prediction
of intense auroral disturbances.
Best Aurora Viewing
The aurora is most active late at night or early in the morning,
when the sky is clear and the air chilly. The best time to watch is in spring and fall,
especially February, March, September, and October. One of the best times to look for the
Northern Lights will be when it is dark because of a new moon.
Hardy Alaskans like to put on their parkas and lie on their backs in
the snow to watch. The best viewing happens outside of Fairbanks, away from the city
Winter tourists might want to try the top of Ester Dome which gives
a view of the sky from horizon to horizon. A nice valley view can be seen in the Chatanika
Closer to town, try the Gilmore Trail looking west, or go to south
Peger Road to escape the streetlights. If you are staying in a hotel, you can head down
the street to wherever it seems a little darker. Winter visitors have been known to stand
or lie in the middle of the Ranch Motel's roomy second parking lot to watch the
Some tour companies offer
Aurora viewing. There are also excellent web sites with pictures
and information on the aurora.