Watch for Aurora Click Bait

Thu Jan 07 2016

Every once in a while over the last month or so, I have been seeing worrisome queries on aurora interest pages on Facebook. It all started with a classic click-bait headline, "2016 Is Your Last Chance to See the Northern Lights Before They Vanish." How accurate is this? Is this true? These are some of the questions that introduce the post to others.

The very easy, accurate and simple answer is, "Absolutely not. It's complete hogwash."

Of course, once you click on the article, you get a rather perfunctory explanation of the solar cycle, and how the sun's activity peaks every eleven years or so. In a short answer, the sun's activity is constantly moving from a state of high activity (solar maximum) to low activity (solar minimum). With a total cycle of roughly eleven years, that means that every 5 1/2 years or so, the sun is at it's most active period, then 5 1/2 years later at its lowest period. When it is really active, people down in Kansas get to see the aurora on a really good night. When it is at its low point, you have to be much farther north. But you can still see the aurora during the low end of the cycle. Just plan your northern lights viewing trip to be above the Arctic Circle if you want to have certainty.

We are currently finishing up what some scientists believe is a double-peak. The last peak was around 2002. Right in the middle of the solar minimum, in September 2008, I took a nine-day float down the Noatak River in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. We had many clear nights, and the aurora was on display for every single one of them. So it is very possible to get great displays even during the minimum period of activity.

One thing to be aware of, however, is that the solar maximums have been getting steadily weaker. Given the tracking of past solar maximum periods, the next one will be even weaker than this one, which was the weakest in 100 years. Thus, while aurora viewing may be an increasing industry, data shows that increasingly the activity will be taking place farther north.

To see what I have captured during our current solar maximum, visit my Aurora Borealis gallery.

Aurora borealis over Noatak River, Gates of the Arctic National Park, 2008