2020-21 Aurora Season Recap

May 17, 2021

The sun is the source of the energy that produces the aurora borealis. It goes through a roughly eleven-year cycle, transitioning from Solar Minimum to Solar Maximum and back to Solar Minimum again. The trigger for a new solar cycle is a combination of a long period of no sunspot activity and the sun flipping its polarity.

We are currently in the relatively-new Solar Cycle 25, which began at the most-recent Solar Minimum of December 2019. Even though it is predicted to be a "fairly weak cycle," much like that last one, we have already seen a difference. The aurora season for 2019-2020 was rather unimpressive, but just one year past the Solar Minimum has seen a much better aurora season.

In Southcentral Alaska, you can see the northern lights as early as the first week of August. But most of the month was cloudy, so we didn't get much of an opportunity to see or photograph the aurora. September, which is generally the second-busiest month for aurora activity, was also a miss due to clouds on the right nights. The first good show we had was in October, and I was out on the Knik River with clients for my Anchorage Aurora Quest tour.

But it was November when we had our first sky-filling aurora borealis display in the Southcentral Region. Knowing it would be cloudy near Anchorage, and it was going to be a good display based on the forecast and data, I decided to head up to Talkeetna. A short two-hour drive to the north of Anchorage, the town of Talkeetna sits at the confluence of the Talkeetna, Susitna and Chulitna Rivers. It ended up being a good call to head up there on this night!

Confluence Aurora

The aurora borealis swirls in the sky over the confluence of the Talkeetna and Susitna Rivers near Talkeetna, Alaska.

While December was mostly quiet - it is, after all, the quietest month for aurora borealis activity - we did get a show in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve. Again, clouds and the aurora forecast dictated where I would go this night, again with a group of clients. We headed to an area in the upper Matanuska Valley that frequently has clear skies and allows for good viewing even with a quiet aurora display.

Our Alaska Photo Treks tour van at a pullout along the Glenn Highway.

January, which is also typically a slower month for aurora activity, had two really good shows. The first one came on the night of January 5. Again, the clouds forced me to head north, and I decided to go a bit farther in order to try a different landscape. In this case, I drove up to Broad Pass on the Parks Highway, about 4 hours north of Anchorage.

Spruce and Aurora

Then, on the night of January 24, we had clear skies in the Anchorage area. Normally, I head out of the city to work on landscapes to the north or south. But this time, I wanted to capture images in the city, in an area I normally avoid because it can get crowded on a good aurora night. The moon was also quite bright this night, at 87.5% luminosity. At that brightness, you need a strong aurora to pierce the light pollution caused by a bright moon. Fortunately, the Kp4 aurora was quite strong, putting on a good show over Anchorage.

City Lights

Aurora borealis over Anchorage.

On the night of February 7, there was another good forecast for aurora activity. I decided to again head to the upper Matanuska Valley, wanting to explore different landscapes and hopefully achieve a longtime goal of photographing the aurora borealis over the Matanuska River itself. It was a great night! I took my first aurora photo at 7:30 p.m. and my last one at 2:50 a.m.

Matanuska Corona No. 2

Aurora borealis over the Matanuska River and Chugach Mountains.

On the night of February 13, I focused my efforts on trying another photo I have longtime sought - the aurora over the Anchorage skyline. While I had some minor success, the aurora display never really did what I needed to get the desired photo.

Aurora over Chugach Mountains and Anchorage downtown.

Later in February, I decided to head out for a nine-day road trip to the Alaska Interior to photograph the northern lights. Read my earlier blog post to get the details on that road trip. It was a successful trip, presenting opportunities to explore many new landscapes. While it is always hard to choose a favorite, I think this image represents the best of what I was hoping to capture.

The night of February 28 saw our first Kp6 of the season for the Alaska viewing hours. While the clouds rolled in and blocked the show by 11:00 p.m., I was fortunately out with clients early that night, allowing us to see vibrant, overhead aurora as early as 9:00 p.m.

March is the busiest month for aurora borealis activity, caused by cracks that form in our magnetic field around the spring equinox, allowing for more frequent and active displays. In keeping with that, we had a very busy month in March. I was out photographing the aurora borealis, either by myself or with clients, in ten nights of the month. The busiest period was March 5-7, 12-13, then 19-21. The night of March 5 brought our first appearance of STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement). The strongest show, another Kp6, occurred on the night of March 19 when I was up in the Brooks Range with Michelle for another dedicated aurora trip. While I captured many stunning images during the trip, the photo with the most impact was this one, which went viral on Facebook after being shared to the right page somewhere. To date, the image has a total post reach of 402,593, with 72,340 reactions, 6,657 comments, and 10,766 shares.

First Fire

The first displays of a Kp6 aurora on the eve of the spring equinox bring fiery colors over Mt. Sukakpak, Brooks Range, Alaska.

In April, I was out photographing the aurora borealis on seven nights with clients, with two particularly good displays: on April 17 and 24. These two nights continued an interesting trend where the best aurora borealis displays occurred on weekends.

Salmon Stripe

A brief but bright salmon-pink arc appears low on the horizon over the Knik River on April 17

A Kp3 aurora borealis battles a bright moon and twilight on the night of April 24.

The next Solar Maximum is predicted to occur in July 2025. That means that each aurora season will keep getting better as we approach that next Solar Maximum. I know that as we approached the Maximum for Solar Cycle 24, the best shows were in those years leading up to the Maximum. From what we have seen so far, the next four years will be pretty good! So, if you have been thinking about traveling to see the northern lights, the next several years will be a good time to do it.

To see the highlights of the entire 2020-21 aurora borealis season in still images, enjoy this slide show!

S.T.E.V.E. towers high while the aurora borealis glows over the Chugach Mountains in the Knik River valley.

S.T.E.V.E. towers high while the aurora borealis glows over the Chugach Mountains in the Knik River valley.