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For many people coming to Alaska, one of the things they hope to catch a glimpse of is the Northern Lights. Who can blame them, not only is the phenomenon rare for a large majority of the planet, but they are truly spectacular to see in person. No matter if you are a lifelong photographer camped out waiting for that perfect moment to capture your long exposure, or just a casual observer with a curious mind for the wonder of our planet, there are a few things you should know about when to not only catch the Aurora borealis in action, but also the cause behind them!
What causes the Northern Lights?
The explanation is relatively simple even if the mechanisms behind them are incredibly complex. Basically, what is happening, is that the Sun, our Sun, emits charged light particles in the form of a solar wind that travel in every direction, some of which make their way to Earth. A small portion of those electrically charged particles will integrate into the atmosphere, not being deflected by the magnetic field, and as they seep through the magnetic field and closer to the Earth, they hit atoms and molecules at high altitudes in our atmosphere, becoming excited causing them to illuminate in ovals around the north and south pole. As the charged particles convert back to their original state, they put off the colored light that we see during an auroral display! The reason that the colors vary has to do with the type of atoms that the charged particles are interacting with. The greens and reds are caused by oxygen in the atmosphere, the latter of which is caused by very high-altitude oxygen, and the purples are caused by the nitrogen atoms.
Where can I see the Northern Lights in Denali?
As for being able to spot the lights, well there are several variables that come into play when going on the hunt for an Aurora. The first is the weather here on earth. If it’s a cloudy night, or one with a full moon, then it’s possible you won’t be able to see them. The aurora is happening above the clouds, so from the perspective of the earth’s surface, you won’t get a look at them on a cloudy night. The full moon is something that can flood the sky with light pollution causing a weaker showing of the lights to be drowned out by this competing light.
The next factor is your proximity to non-natural light pollution. You must get out of the cities for the most part to see the lights. Streetlights, building lights, and just general light pollution will make it very challenging to get a good look at the darkness of the sky which acts as a backdrop for a showing. Head North out of the city whenever possible and look for areas with a clear horizon that offers more space to look north.
Next, do just a little research on apps that will allow you to track to the forecast. We have gotten great as a species figuring out when we should expect a good show, all the way down to the time of night. When you find the right app, you’ll get notified for the best times to look, maximizing your chances of seeing them! A lot of the times, your hotels will also set up a wake up call for you if it’s the right time of year, upon request.
What’s the best time of year to visit Denali to see the Northern Lights?
Make sure that you are coming to visit at the right time of year. The earliest you can expect to see them is late August once it starts to get dark again. Coming in June and July will prove fruitless in your journey to see the lights, because there won’t be any occasions where it’s dark enough for this to happen. The best time is the dead of winter, and heading as far north as possible, but for those unwilling or unable to venture to Alaska during it most unforgiving and brutal winter months, consider September through October. Though a lot of the normal excursions and hotels will be closed, at least in the Denali area, for those who have their eyes set on the sky, this is the time to do it. Stay vigilant, and eventually you’ll be rewarded with the dancing lights that have caused wonder for millennia.
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