A little known fact about Aurora Chasing in the U.S.: During weak to average displays, you can’t see the Northern Lights with the unaided eye. That’s right. Too often, you can’t even see the Aurora!
What?! How can you chase something you can’t see?
Well, it takes some creativity. The creativity of using a camera, in fact. You see, our human eyes are not designed to help us see well at night. The rods and cones in our eyes cannot detect the full spectrum of light in the dark. But a camera does!
At lower latitudes, Northern Lights often show up on a DSLR camera, before they appear to the naked eye. As the Aurora gains strength, it may then become visible without the use of a camera. Or it may hide from view, drifting just below the stars and comets until sunrise.
Even if Aurora is visible to the eye, it often appears without color, instead forming white pillars or silver veils above the northern horizon. This could be why so many first-time Aurora Chasers have trouble spotting the Northern Lights.
It doesn’t look like the colorful designs shown in photos, videos, and popular culture.
This is especially true for the lower latitudes. Chase at a latitude anywhere south of the 45th Parallel, and you’re looking for a beacon of light that’s glowing from the distant, far north. So far north, that it may linger like an invisible friend — not much more than an idea floating out on the horizon.
So, how do you see it? Train your eyes to the sky using this field guide, or give it time and wait patiently to see if the Northern Lights will brighten up their dance.
When can I witness the colors with my own eyes?
Experienced Aurora Chasers in the lower 48 states agree: Sadly, we can’t predict visible color in the Northern Lights at these latitudes. Especially not as low as the 42nd Parallel, where an eager community of Michigan Aurora Chasers inspired this column.
If you’d like to see color with your own eyes, your best bet is to watch for live sightings and eye-witness accounts on social media, indicating that people are actually seeing vivid lights in the region where you live. Then get outside fast!
There are simply too many variables to predict naked-eye color, the first being your own eyesight. Because the rods and cones in our eyes don’t see well in the dark, a camera will always pick up more color, even without photo editing.
Each person also has their own unique individual eyesight. We can’t predict how well your eyes will perform with night vision. Experiences will differ based on a broad range of factors, spanning from corrective lenses, age, or colorblindness, to other genetic factors.
Even if we could know when the average person will see colorful Aurora in the dark at lower latitudes, there are too many factors in the composition of the Aurora to make this predictable.
Many Aurora Chasers believe that a high density or an extremely low Bz can lead to more visible color, however, those factors can be influenced by solar wind speed, Bt, a positive polarity of the solar plasma, or how much the magnetosphere engaged with previous solar wind activity.
So, if you want to truly understand when to see visible color in the mid-latitudes, you will need to build your understanding of space weather science. Another alternative is to learn by doing, as you gain more real-world experience viewing the Northern Lights. Often, we learn just as much from our failures as we do from our success.
Delight Your Eyes: How to Improve the Chances
No matter how challenging it is, I’ll share some advice that could help you catch a gorgeous Aurora display at lower latitudes with your own eyes.
(And for most people, it is challenging below the 45th Parallel.)
So, how can you increase your chances of catching visible color in the Northern Lights? Well, there is no tried-and-true formula, but there are some things you can do to improve your aurora viewing experience.
- Generally speaking, the most powerful numbers in aurora data allow us to see Northern Lights more vividly. Learn what these are by reading websites and watching the trends of different aurora displays. Wait for powerful geomagnetic storms, such as G1 Storms, G2 Storms, G3 Storms, or higher. (At least, a Kp5.)
- In addition to storm conditions, look for high solar wind speed, high Bt, and especially high density. You’re going to need every data point working in your favor to produce the best results.
- Chase Aurora when Bz, a component of the Interplanetary Magnetic Field, is at its lowest values. Known as the gatekeeper, this factor should be tipped as far negative or southward as possible with sustained numbers in that direction. I look for Bz values of -10 or -15 when I am hoping to catch a naked-eye display.
- Find the darkest skies possible using a dark sky map, which is easily searchable.
- Avoid aurora chasing with centers of light pollution to the north of your location.
- Go as far north as possible, to increase your chances of viewing a fantastic display.
- Plan to stay out all night so that you don’t miss the peak of an aurora display, which often appears in the pre-dawn hours.
- Chase when there are no obstructions, such as a bright full moon, fog, or wildfire smoke. Get out before the moon rises or stay out after the moon sets, because the sky will be darker then.
- Try chasing under winter skies for more clarity in the crisp, cold air.
- Take a camera so you can detect what colors are possible and when the aurora are getting stronger, even if naked eye visibility doesn’t pan out. If the colors appear on camera and brighten with time, this is a good sign. The Aurora may soon appear in its full glory to the unaided eye.
Or consider taking a trip north of the United States during the colder months, when naked eye colors are a common occurrence for people living closer to the North Pole.
If your heart is in it, I truly hope you get to experience the wonder of a visible Aurora display one day! Nothing can match this awe-inspiring experience.
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 Jonatan Pie/Unsplash.