How to Be Wowed By the Northern Lights in the U.S.

by  Yahoo! Travel | Dec 19, 2014
Northern lights above an igloo
Northern lights above an igloo / unaz/iStock

By Jennifer Billock for Yahoo! Travel

The Sámi watched the northern lights with reverence. Traditional beliefs among northern Scandinavia’s indigenous population say that the aurora is actually the energy of departing souls. According to folklore, if someone whistled underneath the lights, the aurora would swoop down, pick them up, and carry them away into the swirling colors.

But while a whistle may not really spark a show, we thankfully don’t have to go arctic to see the fire. That’s right — you can view the aurora’s dazzling display throughout the U.S., too. As long as conditions are right, the night sky will be ready to wow you.

Find Your Spot

Less dramatic glimpses of the aurora have been spotted as far south as Monument Valley, Arizona. (Photo: Maurizio Rellini/Corbis)

Folklore like the Sámi’s may be part of the reason for the prevailing myth that you have to get somewhere really cold to see the northern lights. In reality, you can view them from much of the United States — west to northern California, east to Delaware, and from northern Minnesota down to St. Louis. It’s a little bit more difficult, but if you know what you’re looking for, you could be in for a show.

Don’t Expect Magic

Bright rainbows of light are less common in the USA. Occasionally incredible displays do happen, like this one spotted in Iowa. (Photo: Mike Hollingshead/Corbis)

You’ve seen all the pictures of a colorful rainbow dancing in the sky. But don’t get your hopes up. This far south, the aurora mostly looks gray or pale green. A good camera picks up more colors than the human eye can see, which is why the photos are all so dazzling. You’ll actually want to look for something similar to light pollution in unusual, moving patterns. Photos will make the colors pop and occasionally, beautiful hues can be seen with the naked eye.

Related: From a Glass Igloo to a Lodge on Wheels — the Most Amazing Ways to See the Northern Lights

Observe Some Sky

The aurora borealis behind some clouds in Caribou Lake, Minn. (Photo: Scott Bittinger/Flickr)

Is it cloudy? Is the moon full? Stay in for the night. Raining or snowing? Don’t even get out of bed. Low latitudes play against us here. The farther south you get, the lower toward the horizon the aurora will shine. Unless there’s an extra-strong display, clouds will block the show, a full moon will drown out the lights, and bad weather will make a viewing impossible.

Check the Internet

Check online to find out where and when you should try to catch a glimpse of the Northern lights, seen here in Minnesota. (Photo: Richard Hamilton Smith/Corbis)

F5 Data is a novice light hunter’s best friend. This system not only shows current aurora conditions, but also predicts how strong the lights will be and how far south they can be seen. The southern distance is expressed as a measurement called Kp. Chicago is at about Kp 7. Anything less is almost always a no-show. You will also need to know the current Bz, which is a measurement that shows if Earth’s magnetic field is pointing north or south. A Bz on the positive side pushes the aurora away from our atmosphere. The sweet spot is when the Kp is high and the Bz is negative.

Don’t be shy on social media, either. Check Facebook for northern lights groups, like the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters (which, despite its name, encompasses all of the U.S.). These communities thrive on finding and photographing the lights and posting updates throughout the night about exactly where and when the aurora is out. A quick Twitter search can come in handy, too. Try searching for some combination of your town name and “northern lights” or “aurora borealis.” Make sure you’re looking at all tweets instead of just recommended ones, and you will find a play-by-play of auroral action in your hometown.

Turn Out the Lights

Light pollution from cities and towns makes the aurora difficult to see. (Photo: William Prost/Flickr)

Any city’s light pollution will likely brighten the sky too much to see the aurora. If you can, get at least an hour outside of town to a flat and dark location. Any direction works as long as mountains, trees, and city lights don’t disrupt your view of the northern horizon.

Related: No City Lights Here: The Best Stargazing Sites in the U.S.

Play the Waiting Game

With some planning and some patience, you can be treated to a beautiful show. (Photo: Justin Dernier/Corbis)

Sadly, the aurora doesn’t show up on command. Optimal viewing time is late at night, from about 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. During this time, sunlight won’t brighten the sky, and as it gets colder through the night, clouds tend to clear. Bring a lawn chair and a few snacks; you may be out for quite a while.

Wisconsin’s Fox Indians shared a darker version of Sámi traditions — they believed the lights were dead enemies’ ghosts preparing for revenge. But before you go readying for battle, try going outside and whistling first. Who knows, it may actually work.

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