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Northern Lights Viewing

Alaska is one of the best places on earth to see the northern lights – colorful bands of light that dance in the dark night sky. Travelers from all over the world come to Alaska each winter to see this stunning display and take advantage of other winter experiences like snowmobiling, dog mushing, skiing, festivals and sporting events.

The science

So what are the northern lights, exactly? The northern lights, also known as aurora borealis, occur about 60 or 70 miles above the earth’s surface —about 10 times higher than a jet aircraft flies — and can extend hundreds of miles into space. The most common color displayed is a brilliant yellow-green, but the aurora borealis can also produce red, blue and purple patterns.

Aurora activity increases with sun spot activity, which generally occurs in 11-year cycles. Aurora activity approached a maximum in the year 2012. This will last about four to five years, which means there will be more auroras visible from locations south of the main aurora occurrence zone than during the solar minimum years. Visitors can track near-term activity by taking advantage of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ online aurora forecasting tool at http://www.gedds.alaska.edu/auroraforecast.

How to see them

While the northern lights occur year-round, summer’s near-constant daylight makes seeing them next to impossible. In winter, however, clear, dark nights lend themselves to stunning displays. Sightings are also possible during the “shoulder seasons” of early spring and into the fall, when less daylight leads to darker night skies. Many Alaska hotels even offer a northern lights wake-up call (upon request, of course) to wake visitors when the lights are out.

Towns and cities produce ambient light that interferes with aurora viewing, and while auroras are still visible from cities, it is best to view from the outskirts of town, or in an area known for clear, dark skies. The Interior (especially Fairbanks) and Far North regions are considered the best in Alaska for northern lights viewing, although the aurora can be spotted anywhere in Alaska.

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