Fire in the Alaskan Sky

Fire in the Alaskan Sky

Chasing the Alaskan Northern Lights

When I mention Alaska to friends in the lower 48, one of the first things they usually mention is the Aurora borealis, or northern lights. These lights are sometimes visible from my main home in Washington state, but not at nearly the same intensity or frequency as when seen from Alaska. In Washington we receive a slightly undulating splash of light pink or white light in the northern sky, but in Alaska it's a full on light show that looks like something out of a science fiction depiction of the night sky.

The lights are caused by solar particles caught in the earth's magnetic field. The magnetic field charges these particles and causes them to light in shades of blue, white, yellow, green and sometime red. The undulating occurs as the particles move along the magnetic waves in the atmosphere.

 

Alaskan native groups have many myths that surround the northern lights. Some believed them to be the spirits of children dancing in the sky, while others were more frightened of it and had myths that the lights could whisk you away from the earthly realm.

 

The lights tend to peak between 10 pm and 2 am, but they are still difficult to see in the more densely populated cities in Alaska. The aurora isn't visible every night, but you are likely to see it if the sky is clear. Intensity also varies each evening. During peak periods of solar activity the lights are more intense, while they are quite faint during quieter solar periods.