How to See the Aurora Borealis

Dec 8, 2015 | Forecast & Analysis Training, Weather Tools & Resources

Video Notes

I have seen the Aurora Borealis around 10 times in central US. Here is what I know on what it takes on how to view the Aurora Borealis effectively.

Yes, the central US. I’m going to show you how to see the Aurora Borealis effectively.

Viewing the aurora anywhere in the country from the central U.S. and north can be possible. There is a good chance tonight (9-12-14) that auroras may occur due to a large X-class solar flare that hurled a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) towards Earth. Here is what you need to know first:

Step 1: Get Out of the City

Light Pollution Map

It’s rare enough to view the aurora in the United States. It’s even more rare to view it in the middle of the city, especially a larger one. Why is this?

There is this phenomenon known as “light pollution”. Light pollution comes from city lights and the rays of light that comes from them interacts with tiny dust particles and moisture in the air. These particles are then lit up in the sky.

Obviously, this will significantly block your viewing of the northern lights. So get out of the city. The bigger the city, the farther away from it you may need to go. You must go NORTH of the city and keep in mind other cities to your north.

I live in Omaha, NE for example, and I know that driving a good 20 miles northwes-tish will often improve my viewing a good 80%. You must completely go into the country away from big cities in every direction to get 100% viewing.

Step 2: Weather Plays a Significant Role

Clouds. The ultimate buzz-kill of any aurora display. You must make sure that clouds are not in the forecast for your area before you decide to pack up an take a 1 hour drive out of the city.

I kid you not, I have seen this mistake done by people before.

Clouds, thick or thin ones, can pretty much obstruct your aurora viewing pleasures nearly 100%. Partly cloudy skies, however, can reveal the aurora through the breaks in the cloud.

Here are a few nifity tools in determining how extensive the cloud cover will be or is:

1.) The National Weather Service.
A great resource to determine what the skies will be like is the National Weather Service’s Hourly Weather Graph. Just go to their website here, click on your region on the map and your area that you are going to be in, and find the “Hourly Weather Graph” down below the text forecast in the “Additional Forecasts and Information” headline.

Mess around with the tool, it will show you how much sky cover is expected each hour several hours out. Typically your going to want sky cover of 50% or less. YOU MUST MAKE SURE that areas to your north a good 100-150 miles aren’t completely clouded over either, because again your going to be looking NORTH.

2.) Satellite.
Forecasts aren’t always 100% accurate and that is where Mr. Satty comes in. This is a great website to view satellite and satellite loops for your region.

It is very important to loop the satellite so that you can see an animation on where the clouds are going. Sure it might be clear now in your area, but some mean evil clouds from the north might be drifting their way to the south to poop out the show.

Obviously, you can’t view the “visible satellite” at night so you must look at the “infrared satellite” and the “water vapor” satellite.

a.) The infrared satellite:
It measure the temperature of cloud tops. I’m being general when I say this, but to make things easy, make sure that the values in your area and a good 100-150 miles north of you are NOT in the negatives (yellow-blue-green colors). These indicate clouds in the sky. Make sure it is in the positives (orange/browns). Here is a good website to view the infrared satellite.

Infrared Satellite

b.) The water vapor satellite:
It measures water vapor in the atmosphere. This one is a little harder to determine for something like this in my opinion but is a good supplement. To make things easy, you want to be in areas of lower negative values (particularly the dark dark grey / brown areas). Again make sure there isnt’ alot of vapor 100-150 miles or so north of you either. Here is a good website to view the water vapor satellite.

Water Vapor Satellite

Step 3: Pay Attention to These Tools / Forecasts:

After you have viewed the aurora forecast for your area, no clouds are in your vincinity, and you are away from the cities, it is now time to look at the current data. Here are a few nifity tools:


How to See the Aurora Borealis

1.) The Auroral Oval
It is an estimation of the current visible aurora. The more orange and extensive that “donut” is, the more intense and viewable the aurora is. View it here.

If there are even whites above you or just to the north, I’d say it is worth a shot to go out and check. Keep in mind this is current data, not a long-term forecast.

Again, keep in mind, this “donut’ doesn’t HAVE to be directly atop you, it just needs to be close and to the north as you will be looking that direction.

You have a good 10 minute warning from this chart to get outside before anything happens.

2.) The KP Index

KP Index Chart

You typically want values 4-5+ if you are in the northern U.S. You typically want values of 6-7+ if you are in the central U.S. And if you are in the southern U.S., your going to want values above that. View it here.

This isn’t always accurate and should be taken with caution, but I’ve seen it preform well many times.

Here is a good site that shows the FORECASTED KP index for several hours in advanced.

3.) Space Weather Plots
These are pretty handy. These obviously look very confusing if this is your first time viewing them. I’m not even going to try and go into specifics on this one. But I’ll show you a good rule of thumb to follow:

 a.) The “Velocity” graph.

Solar Wind Velocity Chart

It pretty much indicates the solar wind speed way up high. When you see this thing in the several hundreds or spike around erratically, it typically means a solar wind storm is present, likely caused by solar flare’s coronal mass ejection (CME). This is the case for our aurora potential tonight.

b.) The “Bz” graph

Solar Bz Chart

When you see this graph bounce around above and below zero quite a ways erratically, a solar storm is likely whipping around the magnetic fields back and forth, so it is a good idea to check the skies when this happens.

c.) The “Density” graph.

Solar Density Chart

Its always good to see this above the green and spiking around a bunch for auroras. It means there is a dense flare interacting with the magnetic field.

d.) The “Bt” graph.

Solar Bt Chart

You typically want values to spike upward or be at a high level above the green for auroras.
You want the Bz graph to show NEGATIVE values, particularly -6 or greater for auroras. This could indicate that auroras are happening right now.

This is BY NO MEANS a black and white rule. I’ve seen so many times the graph go negative and nothing happens. But I can assure you, if the values are positive, auroras are unlikely.

Don’t give up if they are very high in the positive. Especially if you see the graph spike around or spike up suddenly. Again, this likely means the magnetic field are getting whipped around and it could easily go south very rapidly.

You have a good 10 minute warning from this chart to get outside before anything happens.

Step 4: Understand the Current Auroral Intensity

Auroras aren’t always visible to the naked eye. An aurora could be happening and you may not be able to see it always. A good tool to bring if you have one is a DSLR camera.

Set your camera on a high ISO speed (800+), high aperture (>f/4.0), and slow shutter speed (15-30 seconds+) to test and see if auroras are visible on your camera. If they are very visible, you then can fine tune your image creativity by changing around the values to suite your style. Remember high ISO will lower the quality of the image but pick up more light. Slow shutter will blur the movement of the lights a bit.

Here is a tutorial on how to photograph the aurora by photographer Patrick Endres.

Step 5: Be Patient

Bring a lawn chair. Bring proper clothes. Bring some snacks and water.

Many times the aurora will come in and out. Sometimes bursts will last minutes. Sometimes they will last hours. Sometimes there are breaks for a few hours. Sometimes nothing happens at all.

Remember, auroras are a very unpredictable phenomenon. I have seen big X-class flares like this fail and others succeed. I have seen much smaller flares succeed as well so you never know what your going to get for sure.

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