The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are a natural phenomenon at the top of most traveler’s bucket list; they definitely have been on mine since I can remember. These colorful light displays are caused by charged particles released from the Sun, known as solar wind, as they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. They typically occur on the band 10-20 degrees of latitude from the North Pole, making certain locations around the planet true hot spots for aurora viewing; most notably, Iceland, Norway, Canada and Alaska. In Alaska, the small town of Fairbanks prides itself in offering the best chances, as well as the easiest logistics for those who live on the West Coast of the US like me.
The best time of the year to hunt auroras is around the equinoxes (March 21st and September 21st), when solar activity reaches its peak, and there is the right balance between clear skies and dark nights. In January, for example, there might be too many clouds obscuring the view, and in May the weather will be nice but there will be too much daylight for the human eye to appreciate the auroras. On a given night, 11pm-2am tend to be the hours with the most activity. In a broader sense, NOW is the time to see the northern lights, because they follow an 11 year cycle, and we’re currently on the downward side of the peak, which happened in the winter of 2014… so hurry up!
Having done this basic research, we flew into Fairbanks for a three day weekend, extremely excited to fulfill this childhood dream. We had been compulsively checking the useful forecast from the University of Alaska, and even though it didn’t look particularly promising for our dates, it seemed like we had a fair chance at “seeing something”. We spent the day enjoying all the other activities Fairbanks has to offer, which I will relate in a separate post soon. Spoiler alert: an amazing ice sculpture championship coincides with the best aurora viewing time in March. When the night fell, we ate a hearty dinner at The Pump House, and then drove our rental car up to Ester Dome. Our Airbnb hosts had recommended this spot over more famous ones, like Chena Hot Springs and Murphy Dome, because it was closer and less crowded. As we drove up, we could already spot some green shades in the sky…
But once we reached the top, away from the light pollution of the town, and pulled over on the shoulder of the road, covered by snow, the lights were gone. We waited for about half an hour, turning the car on every once in a while to warm up. And then, very slowly, the green lights started appearing back, low in the sky in front of us. This was already gorgeous, but the best was still to come. Suddenly the activity picked up, the lights became more intense and started swirling higher up in the sky. We stepped out of the car and just couldn’t believe our eyes. After a few minutes, the auroras lost intensity, and we quickly went back into the car.
A while later, we noticed that some activity was picking up to our left. We turned the car around and waited a bit. By then, we were completely alone in the quiet, frozen night. We had parked a few yards before the end of the road (where the other cars of aurora hunters had set up), and the only other car around had just left. Important lesson: be patient. The northern lights became more and more intense, spreading across the whole sky. They appeared to be dancing, changing shapes quickly. We went from green brushstrokes covering a wide area in front of us, to a sharp green and purple ray crossing the sky in a couple of minutes. We were mind-blown.
By then, it was already 2am and we were exhausted and cold. We had probably seen more than we expected (part of me always feared this whole thing was a Photoshop scam), so we decided to call it for the night. This would be our only aurora viewing that weekend, but it was a worthy one. Unfortunately, we had missed the opportunity on our first night because our luggage was lost, and we wouldn’t see anything on our last night due to thick clouds. Plan for at least three nights in Fairbanks if you want a good chance. Also, photographing the northern lights requires a bit of planning: bring a tripod (or alternatively, figure a way to hold your DSLR still on the car dashboard like we did hehe), use timer, and practice with manual settings (long shutter speed, low ISO, focus on infinity, etc.). To be honest, we were so mesmerized looking at the auroras borealis that we nearly forgot to take pictures.