Aurora Hunting

Denali, the tallest peak in North America, is backlit by the aurora while the Milky Way Galaxy spans the sky on February 8, 2018, at 2 am. This 15-second exposure pulled out star details invisible to the naked eye.

Bagging the greatest lightshow on Earth

[by Todd Salat]


“I HEAR THE NORTHERN LIGHTS ARE GOING TO SHUT OFF BECAUSE WE’RE IN THE LOW OF THE SOLAR CYCLE,” someone had told me a while back. This thought flashed through my mind as I stood bewildered by the aurora dancing directly over me last March in Alaska’s interior. Not one night, but five nights in a row, the nighttime sky erupted with wild, bizarre sheets of emerald white and crimson light rippling and following the turbulent whims of our magnetic field interacting with the solar wind. Science turned magical.

Auroras curl their way above the Brooks Range of northern Alaska as a full moon illuminates fresh snow on October 8, 2017, at 1:17 am. Todd Salat calls these “eddies” of light because they flow just like water eddies behind a boulder in a stream. In the case of the aurora, Earth is the boulder and the solar wind is the stream—turbulence on a grand scale.

It’s true that we are currently in what’s called solar minimum, the quieter phase in the approximate 11-year sunspot cycle. This means sunspots are low in number. Headline-grabbing explosions like solar flares and CMEs (coronal mass ejections), the generating energy behind widespread aurora displays, are less frequent. But do not despair; the sun is always kicking off energy, and the auroras never completely shut off. You might have to hunt a little harder for the lights, but that’s an integral part of the fun and reward.

AURORA SEASON

In the central part of Alaska, aurora season begins in the early part of August when darkness creeps back into the sky after a long, bright summer. It ends sometime in early May when it becomes too bright to see the aurora. Statistically, September, October, and March are the best months because of an enhanced solar-terrestrial connection around the spring and autumn equinoxes.

LOCATION, LOCATION

There are definite opportunities to see the auroras in southcentral Alaska ( for example, around Anchorage latitudes), but your chances increase as you head north toward places like Talkeetna, Cantwell, and the Alaska Range. Head farther north through Healy, Delta Junction, and Tok on up to Fairbanks, the hub of Alaska’s interior, and odds grow exponentially. These regions are under the auroral oval: a wide, ring-shaped zone that encircles Earth’s magnetic poles and has the highest statistical occurrence for aurora activity. This high-energy auroral zone is transected as one travels even farther north up the Dalton Highway, crossing the Yukon River, Arctic Circle, Brooks Range, North Slope, and ending at Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse. That’s all good aurora country, but the trick is to score clear Earth weather along with active space weather.

Several aurora-touring operators exist in Alaska—an online search yields many reputable options.

Auroras dance over St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage on March 1, 2017, around 1 am. The photographer had envisioned this shot for 15 years before conditions aligned for him to capture it.

GUARANTEE POLICY (AURORA TOUGH LOVE)

“Are there any guarantees I’ll see the northern lights?” I get asked this a lot, and the answer is no. One thing I can guarantee, however, is that your chances will be a heckuva lot better going out to look for them than staying at home wondering. The extra challenge makes experiencing the greatest light show on Earth well worth the effort.


Anchorage-based Todd Salat is celebrating his 21st year as a full-time aurora hunter. His metal prints and award-winning movies are available at aurorahunter.com.