From the Headlands program Director Mary Stewart Adams:
BY FAR the most frequently asked question at Headlands, which reveals the deepest longing for rare celestial experience, is “When can I see the Northern Lights?” We hear a lot about the aurora these days, especially because of the pervasive reach of the Internet and social media. Still, the experience of an auroral display remains elusive for many, and this is frustrating.
So what should you know?
The season for experiencing increased aurora activity is upon us! In a wonderful article published on the World Science Festival site in 2014, an explanation was given about why the aurora are more active at the times of Equinox (March 20 and September 23) than at other times. To quote from the piece:
“One strange side effect of equinox [when Sun appears directly over Earth’s equator and day and night are of equal length] is a dramatically increased likelihood of auroras, the magnetic storms that flare like ghostly fire in our atmosphere. The Northern Lights are called Aurora Borealis; the southern counterpart is called Aurora Australis. These storms are caused by collisions between fast-moving electrons (powered by the solar wind streaming off of the sun) and oxygen and nitrogen molecules in our atmosphere. Energized gas molecules give off photons, leading to billions upon billions of little bursts of light, which gives us the hauntingly beautiful auroras that dance in the thermosphere, the second-highest layer of the atmosphere, some 50 miles above the ground.
NASA data shows that geomagnetic disturbances are twice as likely to occur around the equinoxes (March-April), (September-October) than around the solstices. Why? The answer is likely the same reason for the season: axial tilt. For auroras to happen, the Earth’s magnetic field and the magnetic field of the solar wind have to connect just so. Earth’s tilt at the equinoxes appears to orient the planet’s magnetic field in a position that’s ideal for the solar wind pipeline to create these illuminating electron collisions.”
In other words, the Earth is tilted toward the Sun in such a way, that at the times of Equinox, it is most ‘open’ to the effects of solar activity, and this means auroral activity can increase.
So what should you do?
Follow any one of the links included here on our website under the Northern Lights tab. If you’re a Facebook user, follow the group Great Lakes Aurora Hunters. They post a lot of information and some amazing pictures. Spend time getting to know the sky and its many moods, for while we can make predictions based on statistical evidence, nothing can take the place of direct experience with and relationship to the natural world~the unexpected can always happen, and aurora can occur without warning, and sometimes not show up even when conditions are right.
And count your lucky stars! The aurora usually appear in the North, and their peak is usually after midnight, though many of the beautiful displays this season have happened before midnight (see why it can be so frustrating?).
Always determine your viewing area ahead of time, so you aren’t caught out in the dark without clear awareness of where you are. The photos you see do not always show what the naked eye sees, nor do the images have the same feeling as the live encounter.