Alaska’s Amazing Aurora
The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is an awe inspiring natural phenomenon. To understand how the aurora occurs think of the earth as one giant magnet. The aurora is formed by electrons moving along our planet’s magnetic field to the Polar Regions where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. In these collisions, the electrons transfer their energy to the atmosphere and it is released in the form of photons of light. The colors depend on the atoms that are excited with oxygen giving off the most familiar green and sometimes red glow and nitrogen a blue glow. The same type of energy exchange process works to make neon lights glow. The Aurora changes shape as the beams of electrons move. Often it appears as tall rays that look much like a curtain made of folds of cloth. The arcs twist and sway, just as if a wind were blowing on the curtains of light.
During major geomagnetic storms the aurora expands away from the Polar Region and can be seen over portions of the lower 48 states. However, the best place to observe the aurora regularly is under an oval shaped region between the latitudes of about 60 and 75 degrees. At these latitudes, the aurora can be observed more than half of the nights of a given year.
Interior Alaska is right in the heart of the northern hemisphere’s peak viewing latitudes with Fairbanks falling at 65 degrees latitude. Several BLM areas offer some of the best viewing opportunities anywhere for adventurous and prepared visitors. The White Mountains National Recreation Area has an extensive trail network and reserveable cabins for mushers, snowmobilers and cross country skiers. Further north, Coldfoot Camp (population 13) is a dramatic and very remote viewing area along the Dalton Highway and is accessed by guided aurora tour groups even in midwinter. The University of Alaska Geophysical Institute has an aurora forecast page for both Alaska and the lower 48: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/
Late Summer through Mid Spring are peak viewing times in Alaska as the midnight sun state does not have dark enough skies in summer for viewing the aurora.