Why Northern Lights Viewing Will Be Stellar Over the Next Few Years

Time to learn the term “solar maximum” and book that aurora borealis trip.

Streaks of pink, green, and purple northern lights in the night sky

Pink, red, and purple hues only occur when the Kp Index is higher than four—which will be more common in the next few years.

Photo by Shutterstock

Cold, clear nights in our northernmost climes are when you’re most likely to see the shimmering, kaleidoscopic show of the Northern Lights. Curling and flickering, pulsing and waving, the aurora borealis paints the night sky in broad strokes of chartreuse, magenta, and violet.

Good news: Our chances of seeing this special display will increase over the next three to four years, as we’re currently approaching solar maximum, a time when auroral displays are at their most active and vibrant.

Here’s what you need to know about how solar maximum affects the Northern Lights and how to see them when they’re at their most riotous.

What, exactly, is the solar maximum?

The Northern Lights occur when the sun shoots electrically charged protons and electrons toward Earth. When those particles meet our planet’s magnetic field, they’re drawn to the polar regions. When the particles mix with the gasses in Earth’s upper atmosphere, the energy produced is transformed into visible light (it’s the same principle as how neon lights work).

While the aurora is happening somewhere almost all the time, its intensity varies. However, during solar maximum, the strength of the celestial show increases.

Every 11 years (give or take), the sun’s poles flip—its North Pole becomes its South Pole and vice versa. That rotation causes sunspots (that look like dark bruises on the sun’s surface), which lead to solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), a large expulsion of electromagnetism that, when directed toward Earth, causes the Northern Lights. As we get closer and closer to solar maximum (which is measured by the month that sees the most sunspots, currently estimated to happen sometime in 2025), flares and CMEs will ramp up in number and intensity.

“It’s near solar maximum where we’ll see bigger events, where the aurora is very active, quite bright, and where the aurora comes further from the pole towards the equator, so the auroral oval expands,” says Rodney Viereck, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Shannon Schmoll, director of the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University, says that currently, there are more sunspots on the sun than initial predictions, “suggesting it will be at least stronger than the last maximum (which was quite weak) and possibly one of the strongest since record-keeping began in the 18th century.”

Where can I see the aurora borealis?

Scientists use a measurement system called the Kp Index to determine the likelihood of seeing the lights on a scale of zero to nine (the more solar activity, the higher the number). At lower numbers, like one and two, it typically means that if the lights come out, they’ll be concentrated in the Arctic and likely be more subdued shades of white or green. But if the Kp Index gets up to five or six, the swath of the Earth they could appear over widens (meaning they could be seen as far south as Oregon, Montana, the upper Midwest, and New England). There’s also a larger possibility of seeing red or violet bands.

You can also get an idea of how active the aurora is in your area by looking at short-term aurora forecasts. Rick Tresch Fienberg, senior contributing editor at Sky and Telescope magazine and a senior advisor at the American Astronomical Society, recommends:

When should I plan a Northern Lights trip?

Scientists say that near the spring and fall equinoxes is typically better for Northern Lights viewing. This largely has to do with the position of the Earth at those times. Near the summer and winter solstice, the Earth’s tilt toward or away from the sun is at a maximum; during the fall and spring equinoxes, the Earth’s axis is neither tilted toward the sun nor away from it (it’s why there’s a nearly equal amount of daylight and darkness then). Because the Earth is positioned straight up and the solar wind is hitting directly on the side of the magnetic field, there’s a better transfer of power, which creates more vibrant auroras.

For those who really want to stack the deck and have flexibility aboout when they can travel, another thing to consider is the fact that the sun rotates every 27 days. If there was a good display 27 days ago, then there’s a better probability that there will be a good display approximately 27 days later.

It’s worth mentioning that while the lights are technically happening all year, you won’t see them during the summer—it’s just too bright in the Arctic.

Tips for seeing the Northern Lights during solar maximum

Go as far north as possible

Auroral activity is largely concentrated in what’s known as the auroral oval—think of it like a band that hugs the northernmost latitudes. The dancing illuminations most commonly happen between latitudes 65º and 70º North: Cities like Fairbanks and Coldfoot in Alaska, Jukkasjärvi and Kiruna in Sweden, Rovaniemi and Utsjoki in Finland, Tromsø and Alta in Norway, and most of Iceland.

“You usually want to look to the north, but if you go up into northern Canada or Alaska, you can often get to where the aurora is straight overhead, which is a really nice way to look at it,” Viereck says.

Seek dark skies

The father away from cities and their light pollution, the brighter the aurora appears. Websites like darkskymap.com and darksky.org can help you zero in on suitable skywatching spots. Find a place with clear, sweeping views of the horizon, like the top of a hill.

“One thing that helps create a more dramatic display is to go not at full moon, which can dampen the effect because it brightens the sky and can decrease the contrast that your eye can see,” Viereck says.

Add a few buffer days in case of inclement weather

Even if the Kp Index is at a nine, you won’t see the Northern Lights if the sky is cloudy. Factoring in a handful of extra days in your destination could help prevent disappointment.

Be patient

Just as you can’t predict the moment rain will start, there’s no knowing when Mother Nature will turn the lights on. Similarly, the skyward spectacle could last minutes (and perhaps come back later) or go on for hours, so it’s a good idea to dress warmly, pack snacks, and be ready to settle in when going aurora hunting.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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