Viewing the aurora

As to the time of the year when it’s most likely to see one, we are now moving into that series of months. From about mid-May to about the end of August, it’s generally too light to see them. They may be there, regardless, but the brightness of the night (from June through the end of July you can read a newspaper by ambient light at 1 AM with no problem) prevents them being visible. However, we are now having about 2 or 3 hours of sufficient darkness for them to be viewable if they are present.
Too, they are tied strongly to the cycle of sunspot activity which seems somewhat periodic. Thus, if you can be up here (Fairbanks) during heightened sequences of such solar goings-on, you stand a good chance of some rip-roaring sightings!
(BTW, I’ve seen many of them in my decades up here but have never heard them make a sound. Others claim they do so but since they occur high enough to be out of the sound-carrying abilities of the atmosphere that may be the imagination at work. When you’re standing out in a snowy field and those natural neons are flaring all over the night sky, it’s easy to imagine all sorts of phenomena!)

When’s the best time to see the aurora borealis?

What do they look like in real time? I’ve only seen them in speeded up clips. Do they move quickly, or just glide along like clouds?

They look like a rippling curtain, quite often.

As for the “dancing” northern lights, the first time I saw those, I thought it was the apocalypse. Very, very awe-inspiring, though it actually frightened me.

I saw the aurora best in Alaska, too, but in the Anchorage area. Never got to Fairbanks in the winter–too chicken!

We often see AB at my inlaw’s cabin in NW Ontario. There is very little light pollution; however, because we go in the middle of summer, it’s usually not dark enough until near midnight. Most often we’ve seen them as white or pale shimmering veils in the northern sky, or even overhead.

A couple of years ago there was a strong red AB visible all the way down here in Nashville! It looked like you might imagine if there was a raging forest fire just over the horizon - a strong red glow low in the northern sky. My family laughed at me when I suggested it was AB but it was confirmed on the news that night. Here’s the story.

The best time to see the AB (or Aurora Austrailis) is obvioulsy at night (though I suppose particularly bright AB might be visible during the day.


To Savannah or whoever wants to answer:…So are the “dancing northern lights” a different phenomenon than the aurora?

Also, to Brian/N9lWP. I didn’t know there was also an Aurora Austrailis! I’d never heard of it. Thanks for that.

The furthest south I have ever seen them was in Essex County Ontario, which is just south of Detroit… Lived there for a long time and saw them twice… I live in Manitoba now and have seen them a number of times since moving here…

Funny Story… Not long after I moved to Manitoba I was out on nighttime bike ride and saw a glow in the sky… Since I grew up inside the Light Bubble created by the Metro Detroit area I didn’t really think much of a “glow” in the sky… but then it occurred to me, I didn’t live next to a large city anymore… I was in small town Manitoba and there shouldn’t be a “glow” in the sky… I stopped my bike and took a good look and sure enough it was an awesome northern lights display… Very impressive…

I have a farmer friend who claims that he can hear them when he is out in one of his fields in the dark and quite… he does live in a pretty remote area, but I am not to sure if they are audible at all… he’s a really nice guy and don’t think he would lie, maybe just misinterpreting his senses…

Someone–Chefguy?–will have a better answer than mine, but the “regular” northern lights are like shimmering, rippling curtains of coloured light in the sky. The “dancing” northern lights are

…and that’s how I felt, too.

The “dancing” lights fill up the sky with flashes on and off and kind of explosions of light. I’ve only ever seen it once, and as I said, it scared me! It really did look like the end of the world… totally different from the serene curtains of colour gracefully moving in the night sky.

Your farmer friend isn’t alone.

I was gonna say: “I don’t know if they’re visible from anywhere but Antarctica and the Antarctic islands, as most of the other land in the SH is pretty close to the equator. The southern end of South America, maybe, but Tasmania and New Zealand are no further from the equator than Spain, and South Africa is nearly tropical.”
But then I looked at Wikipedia and found a picture that was taken in Victoria. facepalm It’s a really pretty picture, though.

There’s all sorts of different ways they can manifest. Most commonly, they’re relatively slow-moving (though still fast enough that you can clearly see movement; not like the minute hand of a clock, say), but occasionally you’ll see things like “windshield wipers”, a thin line of white light that sweeps across the sky, or pillars of light that appear and disappear in various places on the horizon, every second or two.

To the extent that any aurora display can be said to be typical, the typical progression for the a good display is first you’ll get skyglow near the horizon, then pillars of light will grow up out of the glow, then they’ll move southwards a bit, then the pillars meet overhead in a band of light across the sky, then the band resolves into the familiar curtain appearance. Of course, most displays only go partway through that sequence. You’ll also sometimes see weird things like the windshield wipers I mentioned, all-sky skyglow, or “amoebas” of light pulsing and oozing through the sky.

LOL The description of what AB sounds like in that link is exactly how my friend described it… Like a hissing bowl of Rice Crispies…

They are best viewed “north of 55” in northern Canada; almost every night, if you go to,say, Churchill. I think that is better than, say, Siberia because they are a phenomenon centered around the magnetic poles, one of which is located in the islands of the North West Territories (now Nunavit). The charged particles from the sun follow the lines of magnetic force until they strike the atmosphere, about 90 miles up.

One particularly interesting night about 35 years ago, IIRC, they were prominently visible in Toronto (45 deg lat) so that must have been a good solar storm.

Urban legend (rural legend?) says that you can move them by noise, but given the speed of sound and remoteness, that would be a trick the mind plays associating the movement they exhibit anyway with noise you make.

Typically they are like green translucent curtains flapping very slowly in the breeze, but occasionally you will see some red horizontal stripes, just like the typical illustrations. Sometimes they hang there, sometimes they move fairly fast. IIRC someone said typically green from nitrogen glow, but sometimes enough energy in the particles to cause oxygen to glow too?

Definitely a site to see if you haven’t. I tried photos with a digital camera once, but the exposures reuired make a very noisy picture. Better to use film if you can.

One crucial part missed in Cecil’s column is the time of the year. Aurorae max iirc is April and October due to the way the Earth’s magnetic field lines up with the Sun’s.