Maybe it’s because scientists still don’t fully understand it. Maybe it’s because the aurora only appear in fairly remote places, or simply because they are breathtakingly beautiful. Whatever the reason, the aurora borealis, or Northern lights, captivate people today just as much as they have for centuries. People come to Alaska from all over to see the curtains of colored light drift and flash across the dark winter sky. It might be one of the most amazing perks to working a seasonal job in Alaska. Here are eight details most people don’t know about this mysteriously beautiful phenomenon.
The aurora can be predicted—but less accurately than weather. By watching the sun to see unusual activities like flares, scientists can predict aurora borealis a few days in advance. Satellites can also pass on information about incoming solar wind that can help predict aurora a couple of hours in advance. However, all that information only works for aurora on a global scale. It’s very difficult to predict the actual location of aurora borealis.
Different colors of aurora occur at different altitudes. Usually, aurora appear as a greenish-whitish glow, but often a red layer appears above that, and occasionally the green layer ends in purple below. The different colors appear because electrons excite different gases, such as oxygen and nitrogen. Different concentrations of certain gases occur at various altitudes, causing the layers or strips of colors.
The aurora have been seen as far south as New Orleans. While the Northern lights are usually only seen between 10 and 20 degrees from the north or south poles, geomagnetic storms can bring aurora to lower latitudes. The types of large geomagnetic storms capable of that generally occur at the peak of 11-year cycles of sunspots.
The craziest aurora borealis appearance in history occurred in 1859. The first time scientists unquestionably connected aurora to electricity was during the most spectacular aurora event in recorded history. Following a massive coronal mass ejection on the sun and a huge solar flare, aurora could be seen brilliantly all over the U.S., Europe, Japan and Australia. It was so bright in Boston that at 1 a.m., people could read clearly by its light.
The aurora have been interpreted as acts of the gods. Following the Battle of Fredericksburg during the American Civil War, the Northern lights appeared over the Virginia battlefield. Since it was such a rare occurrence there, the Confederate soldiers took it as a sign that God was on their side.
But Native Americans had their own interpretations. Some Native Americans believed the aurora to be the spirits of the departed, dancing in the sky. The brighter the light, the happier the dancers. Other tribes believed the aurora to be the spirits of the animals they hunted—deer, seals, salmon and whales.
Fairbanks, Alaska, is one of the best places in the U.S. to see them. Inland from coastal clouding and at the perfect latitude, Fairbanks is a prime spot to check out the Northern lights. Some hotels in the area even offer aurora alarms to alert guests when they’re going off, so people don’t have to wait out in the cold. And if you’re visiting or working in the area, here are some other neat facts about Fairbanks.
Photographing the aurora can be difficult, but is doable with a few tips. Because the aurora borealis is constantly changing, it’s more difficult to capture than most other nighttime photography subjects. But even if you’re not a pro, you can capture images of the beautiful phenomenon. Make sure to shoot on the manual setting. Change your ISO to 800 to start—you can switch it up or down later to make the camera more or less sensitive to light. Then set the camera’s focus to infinity and your shutter speed at 15 seconds to start, with F-stop at 2.8. Use a tripod to keep the camera from shaking, and then make adjustments from there.
Whether you want to shoot photos or just sit back and take it all in, Alaska is one of the best places to view the magnificent Northern lights. If you’re wondering where the best places to watch the aurora borealis are, check out the best places in Alaska to see the Northern Lights!