The Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis
A North Dakota Perspective

By Lyndon Anderson


Northern Lights Forecasts

How do you know if the northern lights are going to be out on a particular night? For years, I didn't have a clue, and I didn't live in the country where I could get up at night on occasion to look out the window and see if there was a display.

The above photograph was taken on March 18, 2002.

Finally, in the late 1990s, I had access to the internet. My first searches came up with two sites www.spacew.com and www.spaceweather.com that I primarily refer to everyday. I also refer to other web sites as well that I found through later searches. Here are my favorite web sites.


www.spacew.com

The front page of this web site tells you at first glance if there is possible aurora activity in the high, middle and/or low latitudes. There is also information on the solar wind velocity and the Bz (southward component), numbers that you will quickly learn to pay attention to if you are "chasing the aurora."

The site also has a feature where you can post photographs of the northern lights real time. You can also check out a listing of all recent sightings on the bottom of the page, and on the links on the left on the opening page is a forum where people can post messages.


www.spaceweather.com

If there is potential for a major show, there will be a short news story on the front page of that web site. 

Also pay attention to the solar wind speed, the southward component (Bz) and the total density (Bt). These numbers are posted on the front page of the web site, and links are included that provide an explanation of the numbers, and that provide more data.

The chances of seeing the northern lights increases in North Dakota if wind speeds increase to 400 kilometers per second or higher, the Bz is at a negative period for an hour or longer, and if the Bt is at 10 or above for an hour or longer.

One of the best features of the site is that following displays, people often e-mail comments on the show and their favorite photographs, which are then posted in photo galleries.

By clicking a lot of links starting at the front page, you can get to daily forecasts at www.sec.noaa.gov/ftpmenu/forecasts/RSGA.html. This page features a forecast that is posted every late afternoon at 5:10 p.m. during daylight savings time, and at 4:10 during the remainder of the year.

The above photograph was taken on September 30, 2002.


Space Weather Prediction Center

This site indicates if there is a geomagnetic storm and the strength of the show minor, major, strong, severe or extreme. Usually, if any one of the warnings is posted, North Dakota is "far enough north" where the northern lights can be seen. If you look at the above link, you will see Kp values. The levels range from 1-to-9, where 1 is the weakest display and 9 is the strongest display. In Bismarck, the best shows to see range from level 5-9. Sometimes you can see a show that is level 4. However, shows of levels 1-3 can typically only be seen at geomagnetic latitudes higher than at Bismarck.  

Read background information on the site to understand the data.


Canadian Space Science Data Portal

This site features a real time auroral oval from the Space Science Data Portal. Read the background information on the site to understand the data. By just taking a glance at this, I can often tell if the northern lights are visible at my location.


NOAA NWS Space Weather Prediction Center - Facebook

I would suggest that you "like" the NOAA NWS Space Weather Prediction Center page on Facebook. The page provides updates on a routine basis, especially if there is activity. If you review the comment section, please note that the general public does not have a good understanding of the science of the northern lights, and when they can view them at their location. Note that this comes from experience. No site can say that the northern lights can be seen at your specific location at a specific time.


Recommendation

I would not recommend relying on the news media to let you know when the northern lights can be seen (I've seen too many guarantees of a display with nothing happening). I have found that my best resources are those mentioned above.

And finally, do a lot of research. There's a lot more information available than what I have posted above that will help in you in your search for the northern lights.


Page 1 - Overview of Information in Online Brochure
Page 2 - An Aurora Chasing Story
Page 3 - Beauty of the Northern Lights
Page 4 - Science of the Northern Lights / Resources
Page 5 - The Northern Lights in North Dakota
This is Page 6 - Northern Lights Forecasts
Page 7 - Putting it all Together
Page 8 - Photographing the Northern Lights
Page 9 - Okay, So You Have Photographs, Now What?


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