Iceland and Norway can dazzle with the Northern Lights, but you don’t have to go abroad to enjoy a night under the Northern Lights. These kaleidoscopic whirlpools dance above the northernmost states of the United States – and we’re not just talking about hunting for the Northern Lights in Alaska.
If and when the conditions are right, you can catch auroras in most northern border states such as Maine or Montana. And catching the lights here is not just a pipe dream: in early October 2021, the Northern Lights painted the sky in New Hampshire To Glacier National Park. A month before that, the dawn hunters caught them in North Dakota. And they danced as low as Muskegon, Michigan, in spring.
Aurora experts say there’s more to where this came from. The sun sets off the Northern Lights during solar storms, when it emits charged particles that collide with Earth’s atmosphere, creating the brilliant green, purple, and even red displays that top travelers’ lists. In December 2019, the sun entered a new cycle of solar activity and this transition bodes well for those who wish to see auroras.
âThe solar cycle is associated with an increase in solar activity,â says Mike Shaw, a astrophotographer and co-founder of the annual meeting Aurora Summit. Each solar cycle lasts about 11 years; the midpoint, about five years later, is the peak of activity of the Northern Lights, known as the solar maximum. âA new cycle is increasing aurora activity as a result, so the next few years will be much better than the last few years,â Shaw said.
How (and where) to find the American Northern Lights
Whether it’s Norway or North Dakota, the same aurora hunting guidelines apply: look for a location with dark, clear skies and minimal obstructions to the north, where the auroras appear. And unlike high latitude regions like Iceland, the lower 48 enjoy nighttime darkness all year round, which means auroras can occur year round.
But, they only occur with geomagnetic activity; disturbances of the Earth’s magnetosphere, caused by particles ejected from the solar atmosphere. Without geomagnetic activity, you have no aurora and this is true regardless of your latitude. Geomagnetic activity is measured via Kp, an indicator of disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field, on a scale from zero to nine. During a normal night, the activity oscillates between Kp1 and Kp3. At Kp3 and above, you can see auroras in places like Iceland and northern Norway, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Not too far below Iceland on the NOAA Kp Card is northern Minnesota, which only requires Kp4 for visibility. From Michigan’s upper peninsula to northern Montana, the aurorae dance with a Kp5. You can track the Kp Index, monitor local forecasts, and watch the map live to see how far the aurora plunges through apps like My Aurora forecast and Live space weather. Since the intensity of the aurora can soar [or plummet] without warning, astrophotographers below 48 recommend visiting these locations if the Kp reaches four or more.
Ready to get out there and see the magic of the Northern Lights? Here are seven places to chase the Northern Lights in the lower 48 states.