The Solar Cycle
Research on the Northern Lights is still very much in it’s early stages. Particularly in terms of our ability to predict and forecast aurora activity, there are a number of questions that science doesn’t have the answer to. While theories and ideas come and go, our present understanding of Northern Lights activity is that their intensity and frequency is bound to 11-year cycles. A question frequently asked is, “Can I still see the Northern Lights even though they are entering their dimming phase?”
The short answer is: Yes you can. While the official peak was in 2014, the cycle will wind down until 2024, approximately. This is due to an 11 year phenomenon called the “Solar Cycle”, which references the amount of solar flares, sunspots and ejections of energy generated on the surface of the sun. The cycle begins and ends with the “Solar Minimum”, and accordingly, experiences a “Solar Maximum” roughly halfway through the cycle. Despite this trend, the coming years should still provide excellent viewing for spectators. In fact, some research at the Geophysical Institute has even suggested that a couple years off-center of the “peak” is actually superior.
Understanding the Northern Lights
Let’s put it in perspective a bit: The Northern Lights are caused by charged particles from these “solar storms” on the sun’s surface, some of which reach earth and react with gases like oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere, causing the Aurora. It’s a bit like how electricity excites the dormant neon gas in a storefront neon sign. The different colors come from the various types of gases that get excited by those charged particles coming from the sun. It is only visible near the North and South Pole because that is where earth’s magnetic field is the weakest and the particles are able to enter our upper atmosphere.
Our previous Solar Cycle lasted 11.6 years , beginning in May of 1996. The current Solar Cycle began in 2008, with minimal activity until early 2010. This cycle featured a “double peaked” solar maximum, with the first peak coming in 2011. It reached its second peak in 2014, meaning that now is at the beginning of the dimming cycle and we have a while to go before it reaches its dimmest point. During that low activity phase in 2019-2020 there will still be lights, but they will be a bit less frequent and vivid. All that being said, since the dimming cycle has begun, the sooner you can see them the better.
Fairbanks is considered the best place in the Western Hemisphere for Aurora viewing because of its clear skies and proximity to the Arctic Circle. The best times to view them are September thru April. There is a higher likelihood of clear skies in the Spring, but there is typically stronger activity in the Fall. The closer to the Spring or Fall equinox that you visit, the better your chances will be. The common stat Alaskans throw around is that if you visit for 3 nights during Aurora season you have an 80% chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
So while peak of the cycle may have just occurred, it’s definitely a great time to see this amazing phenomenon while they’re still strong! To learn how to catch them while you can, check out our Northern Lights Ecotour!