Is 2023 the year you finally see the aurora? It should be.
The Northern Lights depend on solar activity, which follows an 11-year cycle. During the middle of this cycle, the sun has a period of intense activity known as solar maximum. It’s preceded and followed by a period of less activity at the beginning and end of the cycle, called solar minimum.
We’re approaching solar maximum right now.
“Our current solar cycle 25 started in 2019 and in 2023 we will be getting closer to the solar maximum in 2025,” said landscape and nature photographer, Dan Zafra at Capture The Atlas, who recently staged a Northern Lights photography competition. A single year can produce drastic changes in solar activity, but 2023 could see something very special.
Every solar cycle is different, but solar cycle 25 is proving to be very positive for great aurora displays compared to solar cycle 24.
Zafra has observed for himself an uptick in auroral activity. “I travel every year to northern latitudes to chase and photograph the aurora and I have noticed a big change this year compared to 2021,” he says. “We had more nights of Northern Lights activity and, most importantly, bigger displays.”
The viewing season in the northern hemisphere is between September and March—purely because the nights are long and at their darkest—with stronger displays often occuring around the equinoxes in those months.
2022 has also been consistent in terms of solar flares. “They cause the big shows that leave you in awe,” says Zafra. “Like when the aurora moves across the sky with defined shapes and colors like pink and red are visible to the naked eye.”
It’s standard procedure to recommend aurora-chasers head to the Arctic Circle in Alaska, northern Canada, Iceland, Lapland (northern Norway, Finland and Sweden) and northern Russia to maxmize their chances of seeing the Northern Lights. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that as well as being more frequent and more intense, displays of aurora are moving south, on average, opening-up new places to travel to. “There have been more displays at lower latitudes in places like Michigan, the Faroe Islands and southern Canada—places where the aurora is usually visible only during solar maximum years,” said Zafra, who is in touch with many aurora-chasers around the world.
If you do choose to travel north there is one thing you absolutely need—patience. Lots and lots of it. “Most first-timers visiting northern latitudes expect to arrive at a dark location and see the lights dancing and changing colors,” said Zafra. “But aurora displays depend on many factors, including long-term space weather forecasts and key elements like the solar wind.” The aurora fluctuate throughout the night, he says. “Some big displays require being patient and waiting until the magic happens.”
Zafra recommends reading and understanding the aurora forecast as well as downloading a Northern Lights app to receive the latest updates for your location. An accurate local weather forecast is also crucial because cloud is just as likely to thwart your plans as a lack of geomagnetic activity.
If you’re lucky the Northern Lights will put on a sudden and intense display just outside your lodgings. If you’re not lucky then you also need to be prepared to cope with the cold for long periods as you wait-out faint aurora, hoping for better. “Long aurora-hunting nights require layering up because you can expect to be long periods outside in places with cold temperatures,” says Zafra, who recommends toe, hand and back warmers if you feel the cold. It’s also wise to make sure your camera and smartphone batteries are fully charged because the cold more quickly saps battery life (a spare camera battery and/or a portable battery in a pocket close to your body is a wise move).
“Most of all, be patient and be ready,” says Zafra. “When you are in the right place at the right time, big aurora displays can happen quickly!”
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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