How to See the Northern Lights, Or Not

Want to see the northern lights? Head north! Then, don’t be surprised if you don’t see the northern lights. Finally, when you do see the northern lights, you may be surprised.

See the northern lights?

We have seen the northern lights a few times now. And every time, we are amazed. Maybe not for the reason you think though. You’ll see what I mean by checking out these photos of the times we did see the northern lights. As a result, I’ve learned some helpful tips to help you see the northern lights. Or, the Aurora Borealis as they are called up north here.

This is not to be confused with the Aurora Australis you may see in the southern hemisphere. Yah mate, that’s what the southern lights are called down under. And, neither are to be confused with Steve. The proton arc, that is, as some call that phenomenon. Not that scary Steve in Over the Hedge.

Regardless of which hemisphere of the planet you’re standing on, you’ll still need to look up. Because in space there is no up or down. That’s just relative to our place on this planet. Well, technically down is whichever direction has more more gravitational pull. But I digress once again. Looking up is the first thing you need to do to see the northern lights. Actually, the second thing. After you head north.

No, that’s not the sunrise. It’s looking north.

Top Tips to See the Northern Lights

First, don’t be fooled by all those amazing dramatic, vibrant, colorful photos you’ve seen of the northern lights. Apparently, that does happen. But it’s not an everyday occurrence. Which is another thing I’ve learned. The aurora is not constant. I knew that the intensity of any aurora depends upon the solar storm watch and coronal mass ejections. However, the northern lights do not appear every night, or day for that matter.

You only see the northern lights when it’s dark. Which is often daytime, depending upon how far north you head. Yet, we are currently seeing a peak in the 11 year cycle of solar activity. Or so they say. As you’ll see. So, here is what I’ve learned to enhance your chance for seeing the northern lights.

see the northern lights
see the northern lights

Head North and Look Up

Seriously. The farther north you are, the more likely you are to see the northern lights. We are currently north of 61º or the 61st parallel north. And, we still have a better chance to see the northern lights if we look to the north. Depending upon the time, we may also need to look toward the east, or the west. That’s because the aurora moves around the planet.

From our location, in the early evening we may see the northern lights when looking northeast. The main event of any aurora tends to happen in the middle of the night for us. Come early morning, we might catch a glimpse of the aurorae by looking northwest. Yeah, that’s just a fancy plural form of auroras.

see the northern lights

To See the Northern Lights Get an Aurora App

Yes, you can check the Aurora Forecast and see some pretty cool animated space weather predictions thanks to NOAA. Or, there are websites where you can pay a lot of money for Space Weather Alerts. However, there are also free apps that display pretty accurate predictions of upcoming auroral activity. I’ve been using My Aurora Forecast and Alerts for iOS. Aurora Now is another app, but most have Aurora Forecast in the app name.

My Aurora Forecast App

These apps will present forecast graphics much like any weather report. Colors will indicate the strength of the upcoming aurora, with a prediction of the KP Index and when it may be at its highest.

The K-index, and by extension the Planetary K-index, are used to characterize the magnitude of geomagnetic storms.

– NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center

The My Aurora app also provides a view showing predicted cloud cover. Which is usually pretty cloudy these days. So, even with the most dazzling display far overhead, you may only see heavy cloud cover from below.

Your neighbors may see the northern lights before you.

Be Patient

Much like seeing Denali, one must have patience to see the northern lights. It’s not every day massive coronal ejections cause major electromagnetic disturbances in the atmosphere. But when they do, you better be ready. So, it helps to have an Aurora Buddy or two who will alert you if the lights are making an appearance. Be sure to take them off your do not disturb list in case they text at 3:30 a.m.

see the northern lights
see the northern lights

Optimize Night Photo Settings

Rene wanted to take better photos so she searched for iPhone apps to optimize night photo settings. She was about to pay for an app that provided exposure control and much more. So, I showed her how to adjust the iPhone camera settings available by default. The Night Photo setting turns on automatically in low light situations. This will provide for a longer exposure time. You can optimize night photo settings by adjusting the exposure time without the needs for any additional app.

Hint: Swipe up on the camera mode (Video, Photo, etc.) Then, tap the Night Mode icon. Now, you can adjust the slider to extend the exposure time. This makes it even more important to hold your phone steady! Or, use an iPhone tripod with remote or the timer for best results.

how to see the northern lights
iPhone Night Photo Settings

Be Prepared

If you get up in the middle of the night, it can’t hurt to poke your head out the window. Or, at least look out the window if the temps are below -10. And, if you see northern lights be prepared to go outside. That’s where you’ll see the full effect. And that may require multiple layers of warm clothing.

Reality is still pretty amazing in real life.

Finally, you might also prepare yourself to not be too amazed. When we first saw the northern lights, Rene didn’t even believe we were seeing the northern lights. And, that’s because not all pictures are what they seem. Well, they are, but only because they can capture more light information with timed exposure than we can with our naked eyes. Notice the difference among these photos, and you’ll see what I mean.

Still, looking north in the middle of the night where there are no city lights for…well, at all…it is pretty amazing to see the northern night sky light up!

3 thoughts on “How to See the Northern Lights, Or Not”

  1. Great pictures. We hope to stay late enough next year to see the lights. We did when we cruised to Alaska at the beginning of September.

  2. Beautiful pics! This is great information! Thanks for sharing! Unfortunately, no auroras here in Delaware ☹️ When’s the best time of year to view them in Alaska?

    • You have a better chance of seeing the lights in winter, with more hours of darkness. But the sooner the better since we’re currently in the peak of the sun’s 11-year solar cycle.


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