Northern Lights: Finding the aurora borealis


This story was originally published in The Betsie Current, our sister publication in Benzie County.

By Christina Steele

Current contributor

Many years ago, on a freezing February night, I walked outside my childhood home on Indian Hill Road—nestled in the middle of nowhere, between Empire and Honor—and was taken aback by the sight of a deep, dark red moon.

Confused by the color, I tipped my head up to gaze at what I anticipated would be a starlit sky. Expecting to see Orion and Polaris, I instead let out a gasp as I saw ribbons of red light moving above me. The ribbons, curtains, and strobes of red light danced in the sky and across the moon and came to a single point directly above me.

I ran back inside, hollered for my mother and my three little sisters, and grabbed as many blankets as I could hold. My family and I sat bundled together in the cold, gazing at our first Northern Lights (aurora borealis) display.

What I did not know as a young child was that charged particles (electrons) released from the sun’s atmosphere had just entered into our planet’s magnetic field thousands of miles around us. With a career as a middle school science teacher and being an avid aurora enthusiast, I now know that the charged particles from the sun collide with gaseous particles within our atmosphere to result in these bands of shimmering lights, the colors of which can vary, depending on various conditions.

Because our atmosphere has several layers, the colors of the Northern Lights are based on the altitude where the aurora occurs, the density of the gas molecules at that altitude, the composition of the gasses in the atmosphere, and the level of energy involved. These unique interactions lead to the colors of green (most commonly seen), pink and red fringe, red, blue, and purple. For instance, oxygen molecules cause green lights at lower altitudes, like 60 miles above the planet, and red lights at higher altitudes, like 200 miles. Meanwhile, nitrogen particles cause blue or purplish-red lights.


Lifelong Obsession

That first mesmerizing interaction with the Northern Lights 25 years ago led to my lifelong obsession.

Northern Lights have made it into reports when I was in middle school, research papers when I was in college, downloaded apps on my phone, my middle school classroom where I now teach, and a part of many, many late Northern Michigan nights driving to my favorite viewing locations with my husband and our kids.

However, one does not require an obsession—or even a special location—to see the Northern Lights.

With careful planning, timing, and—who am I kidding, lots of luck—bearing witness to the Northern Lights in Northern Michigan is one of the greatest, yet most rarely seen, displays of Mother Nature.

To be clear, patience is a must, as is a sacrifice of sleep. Other recipes for success include clear, dark skies away from any lights, an unobstructed view of the northern horizon, and an active solar cycle.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the boiling plasma of the sun generates a powerful magnetic field. And though the sun’s magnetic field is strong, it is also disorganized—so about every 11 years, the sun’s magnetic field flips. As we near the 11-year mark, the moving magnetic field of the sun approaches a solar maximum. As the sun’s stormy behavior builds to this maximum, solar flares increase in number; solar flares are eruptions of powerful radiation from charged plasma that get discharged from sun spots and accelerate at great speeds into space. Increased solar flares and solar winds in Earth’s direction lead to the formation of Northern Lights when the particles bombard our planet’s magnetic field.

There are a little over two years left in the sun’s current cycle, which means that the solar maximum will occur around 2025, which is great news for aurora enthusiasts!


Where To Go; What To Know

The Northern Lights can only be seen after dark. Imagine the frustration in knowing that the Northern Lights are out during the daylight hours or on cloudy nights, but they cannot be seen!

It is important to note that the Northern Lights are often active in 30-minute cycles, with a couple hours of inactivity afterward. Northern Lights are hard to see on full moon nights and near lights, including towns, cities, and/or porch lights. Clear nights with dark skies and unobstructed views of the northern horizon will give the best views.

Although March and September are considered the equinox months—when the sun crosses the Earth’s equator, so it appears directly above the equator, this puts the Earth’s tilt square onto a solar wind—this summer has already produced some impressive views of the Northern Lights, due to the sun being close to its maximum in the northern hemisphere.

Before heading out, check the weather forecast—a cloud cover map helps, too—as well as check for an active aurora borealis forecast. Dress warmly, and plan to watch the sky between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., remembering that an active period can occur anytime during the dark hours. Auroras are sporadic, occurring randomly for short periods, and sometimes even with the best forecasts, they do not show up at all. Lastly, remember to let someone know where you are headed, in case you get lost in the dark.


Aurora Resources

The Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks provides hourly, weekly, and monthly aurora forecasts.  Currently, their solar disturbance measurement index forecasts that the nights of July 23 offers the best chances of viewing the Northern Lights.

Additionally, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction is another great website; however, predictions are only made for the next half-hour.

Soft Serve News lets you track auroras by providing real-time information, and through their $4.95 monthly notification membership, they will send text-based notifications or a phone call when the Northern Lights are active and visible close to your location.

SpaceWeatherLive is another website and app that allows its users to track the Northern Lights through solar activity, geomagnetic storms, solar winds, and Kp-index using easy-to-read graphs and visuals.

Lastly, a Facebook group called “Great Lakes Aurora Hunters” is a wonderful source of on-the-ground, instant information from local aurora enthusiasts who want to alert the community and give others a chance to see the auroras.  This group, as well as YouTube, also provide wonderful advice for capturing the Northern Lights with your smartphone!

Bottom line: Northern Michigan is full of remote, quiet, and dark places that are perfect for enjoying the Northern Lights. So grab your family and as many blankets as you can hold, and find a place to experience the beauty of the Northern Lights.

With the rare beauty of our night skies—even if you do not catch the Northern Lights—you will still be blessed with the Milkyway, constellations, and maybe even a shooting star.