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.
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. The most recent solar peak, known as the solar maximum, occurred in 2001; the next is expected around 2012. 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. 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. 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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