Why Can I Never See the Northern Lights From Where I Live?


You know the drill: Buzz articles claim that the aurora borealis, a dazzling phenomenon known scientifically as the aurora borealis, could be seen in areas where you normally can’t see it. People who have been brought up on photos of great views like these start to dream, maybe set their alarm to go out late at night, maybe drive outside their city limits to try to avoid light pollution.

The latest news from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looks so positive. The geomagnetic storm is expected to peak on Thursday at a level called G3. This is good, but not great for aurora viewing – the G5 is the highest. While the aurora lights are usually only seen in very northern locations, there is some hope that this storm could push them further south, and even states like Oregon or Pennsylvania could catch a glimpse.

But as often as I wrote in 2020, when there were high hopes for aurora sightings, the forecast changes, the aurora falls shy, and people are disappointed. Is it all a cosmic hoax?


More about auroras

A NASA astronaut captured the beautiful green views of the Northern Lights from space
Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, is well aware that many of us would-be aurora watchers struggle time and time again.

It seems fishy to me

Murtagh likened it to a conversation he recently had with someone fishing for marlin, when he said he asked them how many hours they spent out on the water hoping for their big catch, and how many times they actually made it.

“(Fishing) is like (looking for) the northern lights,” Murtagh told me. “You might be looking for it for hours, and then a perfect storm of events will come and you’ll finally see it.”

Urban disadvantage

If you live in the city — Murtagh spoke to me from Boulder, Colorado when I was in Seattle — you’re already at a disadvantage.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I went looking for (the northern lights) and I didn’t see anything!’ Murtagh told me. “And I say, ‘Well, where have you been?’ And they say, ‘Downtown Denver.’ Oh, well, there’s something called light pollution…”

Light pollution is basically just what it sounds like, the brightening of a city’s night sky caused by street lights and other sources. This hinders our ability to see the stars and planets.

Cloudiness can be a problem

But let’s say you get in your car and drive out of a city or suburb into a rural area with no street lights. There is an element that is out of your control – the weather.

“If you have Washington state [weather], good luck,” Murtagh said with a laugh, referring to my state’s famous cloud cover. And clouds can roll over any state at any time, making aurora sightings even more difficult to predict.

Still want to try it?

And when exactly should you go aurora viewing? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get a prime block of time when the Northern Lights are most likely to appear? Murtagh said that was not realistic. You want it to be dark, but that’s about as specific as predictions can get.

“There’s really no specific time [that’s best],” he told me. “Don’t let anyone tell you, ‘This or that time is when you’ll see it.’

Aurora tourism

If seeing the Northern Lights is on your bucket list and you have a bucket full of travel money, consider a trip to Alaska or northern Canada or even northern Europe.

“Anchorage, Fairbanks, Yukon, Helsinki, northern Scandinavia, those are the places where you have a good chance of seeing (the auroras),” Murtagh said.

There are even trip planners who organize trips around the area hoping to see the Northern Lights.

“Aurora tourism is big business now,” says Murtagh.

It’s worth it?

So if seeing the Northern Lights is still difficult, why are so many of us eager to see them? Look again at some of those wonderful photos and you might be reminded.

“They are so majestic,” Murtagh said. “Seeing the sky rippling in shades of green and yellow, sometimes red and purple. It’s terrifying to see sometimes. Anyone lucky enough to see it in all its glory knows.”

Don’t lose faith

Murtagh offered me and the rest of the town some hope. If we talked about aurora hunting every month from 2018 to 2020, there would be almost no news, he said, because the sun was experiencing solar minimum, a regular period in its 11-year solar cycle when there is hardly any solar activity, such as sunspots and solar flares. eruption.

But this period is ending and the solar maximum will occur from about 2024 to 2025.

“There will be more chances,” Murtagh said. “And more false alarms too!”


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