When our 35,000 Michigan Aurora Chasers got discouraged after months of quiet skies, I took a closer look at the odds. What are the odds of capturing a vivid Northern Lights display as far south as the 42nd Parallel? Better yet, how often can you realistically catch Aurora in Michigan without the aid of a camera?
This curiosity led me to jot down a quick guide for those who are new to the chase. These tips might be especially helpful to those who have tried over and over again to see Northern Lights, but returned home with no luck.
If you’re a beginner chasing the Aurora Borealis at lower latitudes, maybe this will help you find the lights!
TL;DRMost people who chase near the 42nd parallel are more likely to see Aurora with a K6/G2 Storm or higher. Yes, seasoned Aurora Chasers can absolutely help you catch the Northern Lights! But no, it won’t be easy at our latitude.
Know what it takes in the mid-latitudes
The year of 2022 marks my fourth year living in Michigan. Because scientists first thought we hit solar minimum in December 2019, which was shortly after my move from Minnesota, it has taken me a while to get a feel for local Aurora conditions. But I think I understand our latitude better and what it takes to see Aurora below the 45th parallel now.
When I chase Aurora, I like to see it with my own eyes, and I don’t bring a camera. Naturally, this leads me to wait for stronger shows, when the probability of Northern Lights is extremely high. That’s right, sometimes Aurora is only visible with the help of a camera lens. Cameras pick up more light and color in the dark than the rods and cones in our eyes.
That said, I think the best conditions for sighting Aurora in Michigan in general would be a G2 Storm, equivalent to K6, or higher. That kind of geomagnetic storm would reach all corners of the state. Note that in the first months after the Michigan Aurora Chasers was founded, we had not seen anything above K5, or a minor geomagnetic storm, in the forecast. We knew we would see more powerful geomagnetic storms predicted at some point, but G2 Storms and G3 Storms are very rare.
|K-index Aurora Strength||Storm Level||Description|
|K-5||G1 Storm||Minor Geomagnetic Storm|
|K-6||G2 Storm||Moderate Geomagnetic Storm|
|K-7||G3 Storm||Strong Geomagnetic Storm|
|K-8||G4 Storm||Severe Geomagnetic Storm|
|K-9||G5 Storm||Extreme Geomagnetic Storm|
In Michigan, much of the state’s population is below the 45th Parallel, with the Michigan-Ohio border roughly marking the 42nd Parallel. Aurora are more common the farther north you go, which makes it difficult for anyone along the 42nd Parallel (Grand Rapids 42.9°, Lansing 42.7°, Detroit 42.3°, Ann Arbor 42.2°, Toledo 41.6°) to catch Northern Lights.
Surrounded by the gorgeous Great Lakes, Michigan residents also have to contend with a fair amount of lake effect weather, which complicates the scene for sky watchers. In fact, Michigan ranks in the 10 cloudiest states in the U.S., according to Farmer’s Almanac.
That’s why there’s so much interest in Aurora Chasing groups in the mid-latitudes, right? We want to help each other spot Aurora on the RARE occasions it dips this far south when we have clear skies for good viewing.
Now, you might be able to see Aurora at many power levels and values on the K-index in Michigan, especially in the Upper Peninsula and the headlands above the 45th Parallel — where this post is irrelevant! But to see Aurora in much of the state at K3, K4, or K5, or even higher, you really need to know your stuff.
Tips to catch the Northern Lights
Astrophotographers who take stunning photos at our latitude do all of these things:
- Scout out their own beautiful locations for viewing during daylight, so they know the terrain and don’t fall through the ice while shooting in the dark
- Use dark sky maps or light pollution maps to determine what nearby location has the best dark sky viewing with no major cities or light pollution directly to the north
- Make plans to experience other amazing sights on their journey, so they are not disappointed when an Aurora forecast doesn’t pan out
- Check forecasts for earth weather (clouds, fog and wildfire smoke) and space weather (read: Aurora) to understand how likely it is that Northern Lights will appear, and double-check conditions right before heading out in case something changes
- Use apps, satellite data, and live sightings to check Aurora strength and to monitor how Aurora is trending over time
- Go beyond mobile apps, which can suffer from delays or lag, to consult original sources of information in real-time, such as the Space Weather Prediction Center or the Ovation Model
- Learn the many conditions that need to align to create visible Aurora: Using hemispheric power, warnings, latitude, light pollution maps, real-time measures of speed, density and Bz to know if they even have a chance
- Monitor the one factor that can instantly stop a show if it turns positive/northward: Bz
- Take a test shot with a camera before they see anything with the naked eye, to understand if Aurora is present at all
- Stand outside all night long so they don’t miss a minute, with backup plans to safely take a nap or drink caffeinated beverages to stay awake
- Respect public park guidelines and avoid loitering on private property — Gun owners often carry if they see unexpected activity on their property in the dark
- Work together to stay informed or call for help when an emergency arises
- Master their camera settings to capture vivid light
Yes! Those of us with knowledge and experience absolutely can help you catch the Northern Lights! But no, it won’t be easy in the mid-latitudes.
Those who are successful at our latitude will be those who either a) Learn as much as they can and keep trying no matter how discouraging it gets, or b) Wait until a real-time sighting is posted and get lucky by being in the right place at the right time to catch a view.
Good luck on the Aurora Chasing trail!
Author’s Note: The goal of this blog is to give practical advice for viewing the Northern Lights to beginners and amateur space weather enthusiasts, using the simplest terms, common topics, and popular sources. I draw upon my experience as a journalist and an Aurora Chaser, though I do not have formal training in the field. Photo by Nelly Volkovich/Unsplash.