Train Your Eyes on the Sky: A Field Guide

So, you’ve chased the Northern Lights in the U.S. You may have been looking right at the Aurora and not even realized it!

How is this possible? Well, not every Aurora is vivid and colorful and flowing with movement. Sometimes, Northern Lights are just the opposite. Sometimes, they are subtle and short. Sometimes, they don’t look like much more than clouds.

Not every Aurora takes the same formation either, to mirror the displays you see in the movies and pop culture. The Northern Lights take on many different formations. They can appear in the shape of an arc, a valley of dunes, enormous pillars, or a glorious corona seemingly drifting down from the center of the sky.

Not to mention, STEVE. This sub-auroral arc with an interesting acronym appears more southward in the sky. It’s unmistakable with a bright stripe and it often appears with a pronounced picket fence.

On the other hand, many first-time Aurora Chasers are fooled by large patches of light pollution. They see the colors above a city in the sky and mistake the yellow-orange light created by artificial bulbs for Aurora. This stale glow hangs above population centers and other concentrations of artificial light, filling the darkness with its constant presence.

So, how do you know when you’ve found the Northern Lights? The good news is there a few sure signs of Aurora, even for those who are trying to catch a rare appearance at lower latitudes, where Northern Lights just aren’t as bright.

Embrace the Darkness

A lot of first-time chasers make the mistake of stealing one quick look at the sky, and then declaring the adventure a success or a failure. If you can spot the Aurora that easily in the mid-latitudes, fantastic! It must be a vibrant show!

Usually, it takes a bit more work. Here’s what you need to do.

  1. Go outside. This may seem obvious, and we all fantasize about watching the Northern Lights from our bedroom window, a sunroof, or a glass igloo in Finland. It is possible! But let’s be honest, it helps if you go outside. Sometimes, even the pane of a window or a soft glow from the other room can be enough to reduce your viewing experience. Chances are, your eyes are going to acclimate better to the night sky if you go outside, even in your own backyard.
  2. Take a test shot on your camera or phone. Now, as someone who prefers to see the Aurora with my own eyes, this is a step I usually skip. The fact of the matter is that a camera picks up more light and color in the dark than the rods and cones in our eyes. So, you may detect Northern Lights first on your camera preview screen, before you can actually see them with the naked eye. A view through the camera lens can serve as a preview of better things to come. Be advised, your test shot may not be accurate if your camera settings are wrong or your phone camera is too weak for night photography. Still, even a blurry photo will give you a sense of what’s out there.
  3. Turn off your devices or put them away. The brightness of your car headlights, the red and green indicators on your dashboard, the glow of your cell phone, the white beam of your flashlight: All of these light sources can muddle your viewing experience. If you stay in your car with the dash lights on, you could be sitting under an Aurora display and not even know it, because it’s not strong enough to detect from inside the car. Sometimes, it will be. Often, it won’t. Make your surroundings as dark as you possibly can.
  4. Let your eyes adjust to the dark. Once you get out into the darkness, it’s time to embrace it. Take a break from checking your devices, turn off your flashlight, and gaze into the sky. A lot of people recommend you let your eyes adjust for 30-60 seconds. Better yet, let your eyes adjust to the dark for five full minutes. During this time, you will start seeing better in the dark. You will start noticing more. The ground beneath you will seem easier to navigate. Not only will you catch a few shooting stars, but you may also start to see light you didn’t realize was there before.
  5. Focus your attention low on the northern horizon. As a naked-eye Aurora Chaser, I can’t emphasize this enough. I usually start a night of Aurora Chasing by staring intently at the northern end of one of the Great Lakes, letting my eyes acclimate to the darkness and observing the sky for any changes in color, shape or movement. If an Aurora display is just beginning, it will begin in the shape of a subtle arc across the northern sky, from east to west. If the Aurora has already gained power, it will extend outward and upward from this arc. When the display is in full swing, you’re sure to see the formations and movement on the northern horizon and to quickly notice the Northern Lights stretching much higher into the sky, sometimes extending directly overhead!
  6. Be patient and give it time. By nature, humans are not nocturnal creatures. So, you may feel tempted to step outside, take a quick look, dismiss any possibility of Aurora, and go back to bed. But good Aurora displays take time to build, especially at our latitude. The Northern Lights may flicker or flirt with the sky for a moment or two, disappear, reappear, disappear for longer, and then finally gain enough power to burst into full color and put on a show. Don’t let those 5 or 10 minute lulls fool you. If you’re truly chasing and hoping to catch Aurora, I would recommend devoting at least 2-3 hours to the chase. That way, you have a chance to appreciate the night, to learn the changes in the dark skies, to catch a shooting star, and to see Northern Lights, even if it is coming in waves. Of course, the most successful Aurora Chasers will devote an entire night to observing the sky.
  7. Don’t ruin your night vision. Now that you are immersed in the darkness, enjoying all the night sky has to offer, don’t waste your eyes on artificial light. Personally, I’m terrible at this. As a curious person and someone who monitors the data, I’m always tempted to look up the newest stats and active conditions on my phone. But each time I do that, my eyes lose their focus, and seeing in the dark becomes difficult again. If a colorful Aurora were to leap into the sky at just that moment, I would miss it! Because I would still be retraining my eyes to the dark.
  8. Know the signs of Aurora. This may come as a surprise to people who rarely go out at night, but there are actually a lot of light sources in the dark. Sunset sometimes has a lasting affect on the sky. Twilight brings a beautiful gradient of orange, green and blue. Clouds can shine in the moonlight. Light pollution is everywhere we look. And other human-made light sources appear from time to time, such as theatrical spotlights, the glow of a greenhouse, or party lights.

Sure Fire Signs of Aurora

So, what are some of the signs that give Aurora away, and guarantee you’re not admiring light pollution in the dark?

Aurora creates formations. Whether you see the arc low on the horizon, stretching from east to west, or spot pillars or columns of light reaching up into the sky, the Northern Lights will take on interesting shapes and formations that are rarely seen elsewhere.

Aurora moves, flows and dances. It moves! This is one of the major differences between Northern Lights and light pollution. While light pollution or even cloud cover can hold the same position for long periods of time, the Northern Lights will almost always show some movement. Aurora might expand and reach higher into the sky during a short amount of time, flow through the night like a veil or curtains, or flit across the sky in a fast-moving choreography. Watch for the movement.

Aurora changes, gradually or rapidly depending on the display. Northern Lights expand and brighten as they take on more strength, and they fade away when a geomagnetic storm loses power. Sometimes, a display of Aurora will be so fast-moving that you can jolt your head around, trying to catch all the commotion and activity as lights and colors dart across the heavens. Even if there are only slight differences over time, the Aurora will change as you watch it.

Aurora flickers, pulses and shimmers. During extremely strong activity, the Aurora may bring more than light, form and color to the show. It can flicker, pulse with light, or shimmer in the sky.

Aurora drapes over the sky like a translucent veil. Often, you look through an Aurora and see the stars behind it. If you can’t see the stars, you may not be looking at the Northern Lights. That’s because air molecules are interacting with solar matter to emit light and color at different altitudes. The light is being created throughout the sky, but it is not opaque like a cloud. It’s translucent, and it seems almost like the air itself has turned a different color.

Aurora takes on stunning natural colors. Forget stale oranges, muddy yellows or siren blues. Especially with the help of a camera, the Aurora will display phenomenal natural colors that are beautiful to see. Unfortunately, in the mid-latitudes, the colors are only visible to the unaided eye during very strong geomagnetic storms. So, at first, the Aurora may appear to be white or grey. But when you see those vibrant colors pop, you’ll know without a doubt that you’ve caught the Northern Lights!

When in doubt, check the map. Make sure that the way you were looking or taking photos was facing north. Double check to ensure no major cities were located to your north, even up to 30 or 60 miles away. Light pollution can be seen from great distances. Drive by odd light sources to get a closer look and identify if there is an attraction or facility nearby that’s obscuring your view. Or set a goal to travel to darker, more northern skies.

Many people say after they catch the Aurora for the first time, they learn what to look for. All it takes is one great chase to kick-start a lifetime of Aurora Chasing!

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 Ken Cheung/Unsplash.

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