Chasing the Aurora: A Blog for Newcomers

In many parts of the world, night falls and all one has to do is look up to witness the magnificence that expands out into the atmosphere and beyond the edges of our world.

Whether it’s the stars, the comets, an eclipse, the galaxy or the Aurora, there are literally millions of spectacles to view in the night sky. These natural wonders give their own light to the universe, while presenting new mysteries to explore for the scientific and the curious.

In other regions, it’s not so easy. The proximity of large cities and artificial light fixtures can obscure the appearance of constellations, Northern Lights and the Milky Way.

Aurora chasing can be especially difficult in regions at lower latitudes, or even the mid-latitudes, because the Aurora enters our atmosphere through the North (or South) Pole and strives with all its might to expand outward toward the Equator.

Lower Expectations in the Lower 48

In some circles, people don’t realize the Northern Lights can appear in the United States, even in the lower 48. Or if they do, they may not know that it’s possible to see color with the naked eye during strong displays, or that Aurora Borealis come in many shapes and formations, moving at varying speeds and creating unique patterns.

In my experience, how common this knowledge is varies from one region to the next. It also varies based on how much someone has been exposed to nature and science. Of course, it probably depends on other factors, too, such as how much time someone spends outdoors and how much curiosity they have about the sky that surrounds them at night.

Northern Lights can actually be viewed in the continental U.S. fairly frequently, though personally, I believe a chaser’s success rate depends on their experience level and whether they are aided by the use of a digital camera. Sometimes, the Aurora will only appear low on the northern horizon as an arc of subtle green or even what appears to be grey or white. Sometimes, this can only be detected on a digital camera screen. And sometimes, this is our cue that the show is just getting started!

During periods of minor geomagnetic storming, the Northern Lights will dip well below Alaska and the Canadian provinces to reach the northernmost tier of the U.S. On these rare occasions, Aurora has been sighted in states like Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Vermont and Maine. Moderate geomagnetic storms can push the Aurora even farther south, expanding its reach to states such as Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa and Pennsylvania.

Historically speaking, Aurora has even been witnessed as far south as Cuba. Run a quick search on the Carrington Event, and you’ll see what I mean!

That said, Northern Lights are so rare in the mid-latitudes, and sometimes appear for such short intervals of time, that it takes a fair amount of work to catch the Aurora in the U.S.

Sightings are even more uncommon below the 45th parallel. I think it’s fair to say that sky watchers this far south can go for months upon months without seeing Northern Lights in nearby skies. Displays can be so infrequent that the chase can be downright frustrating at times, especially since so many factors need to align to make Aurora possible.

Not only does the weather on Earth have to cooperate, allowing good visibility through clear skies, but the weather in space has to cooperate as well. Guess what’s harder to predict than Earth’s weather? Space weather!

The Exhilaration of the Chase

For me, the rare fortune of catching the Aurora Borealis makes every single moment of the chase truly exhilarating.

The unique sensations connected to a night spent aurora chasing, sky watching or star gazing also make it rewarding to share this passion with others. It’s hard to explain how amazing it feels to guide someone new to a rare sight, so they can see a natural phenomenon with their own eyes for the first time.

When that happens, the awe moves from one soul to another, inspiring people in a chain reaction of well-earned joy and enlightenment. At least, it’s a joyful endeavor to me!

Even if we get skunked trying to find the Aurora, I discover so much along the journey that I grow as a storm chaser each time. When I first took up aurora chasing, it took me many failed attempts before I was able to catch a Northern Lights display on my own. That period of trial and error was almost painful, so I decided instead of focusing on the negatives I would use every failed chase as a learning experience.

Now, it’s easy to get a sense of fulfillment, no matter what happens on the aurora chasing trail.

Maybe that’s why I so eagerly joined the community of Aurora Chasers while I was living in Minnesota back in April of 2012. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to volunteering so much of my time in these circles. Maybe that’s why I’m still giving advice to beginners, from the perspective of an amateur space weather enthusiast and a seasoned Aurora Chaser — nearly 10 years later.

One thing is for sure. The thrill of Aurora Chasing and the excitement of sharing the experience with other people definitely led me to a new pursuit in 2022.

Introducing My Aurora Chasing Blog

Over the years, I’ve become so active leading groups in the aurora chasing community — and given so freely of my advice for beginners — that I decided to launch my own blog.

In part, this will save me time whenever I want to share the same tried-and-true advice with first-time chasers as I have in years in past. In part, this also gives me yet another outlet for creativity, inspiration and expansion, as I work hard to convey useful information to our audience with a fact-driven journalistic spirit.

As an avid Aurora Chaser, I’m excited to share my advice on capturing the Northern Lights in the mid-latitudes with anyone who is interested. Where I live in the Great Lakes region, we don’t have the fortune of enjoying a close proximity to the Arctic Circle or simply stepping outside to watch dancing skies as part of a weekly routine.

Where I live, a vivid sighting of the Northern Lights means having a unique encounter and an awesome adventure. It’s something only devoted Aurora Chasers — or the very lucky among us — get to experience. It’s a phenomenon that amazes and astounds us, and often becomes the highlight of our year!

Ready to chase the Aurora in the mid-latitudes? Get tips for starting out, pointers on common misconceptions, and advice to overcome the obstacles so you can catch an amazing display.

Author’s Note: The goal of the Aurora Chasing 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. Feature photo by Dylan Shaw/Unsplash.

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