It is starting to look like an Aurora Borealis Christmas…
It is true! Space and astronomy websites are predicting a Kp4 for December 19th and a Kp5 for December 25th, 2021. On a level of Kp1 to Kp10, a Kp5 is a great level to glimpse Northern Lights.
That is not all you need to know. Location, conditions, and timing are all factors. And all are varying factors.
I will give you the essentials and tools I use to view the Northern Lights on a regular basis, as evidenced by the photos below. Disclaimer: Aurora Borealis is completely unpredictable along with the weather in its behavior. Here are some websites and apps to investigate for accurate predictions. You may also want to sign up with these apps to receive Aurora Alerts.
Be prepared to interpret unfamiliar information as evidenced here by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association; this shows UTC(Universal Time) and more. You can also find 3 day and 27-day outlooks here.
UTC Radio Flux Planetary Largest
# Date 10.7 cm A Index Kp Index
2021 Dec 27 82 15 5
2021 Dec 28 80 18 5
2021 Dec 29 78 12 4
2021 Dec 30 78 8 3
After getting your information or alerts, you will need clear, dark skies. Beaver Island is blessed with Bortle Class 2 skies with Sky Quality Meter readings of 21.8 or more and is currently awaiting designation from the International Dark Sky Association to become a Dark Sky Sanctuary. Most of the island is preserved and managed by the Michigan DNR and remains isolated, pristine, protected, and unpolluted by unnecessary lighting management practices. These factors make Beaver Island one of the darkest sky places in the world.
Still, other factors may prevent you from seeing Northern Lights. First, it is best to look to the North, Northeast or even a bit Northwest. I have had the best luck at photos shooting straight towards the Big Dipper. Northern Lights have been known to appear straight overhead so keep looking everywhere as you would for meteor showers.
You absolutely must, escape from as much light as you can, including interior car lights, cell phone screens and your camera screen as much as possible. It takes a full thirty minutes for human eyes to adjust to the dark. Or, I should say, it takes that long to become accustomed to the amazing array of existing light in the nighttime skies. And avoid locations where car headlights may appear suddenly to ruin your night vision.
The Northern Lights appear to the naked eye as an unusual glow in the sky. Like nighttime glows from the moon, there may seem to be lighter in the northern skies than you have seen before. Note; unless the Kp Level is remarkably high on the scale, like a 7-10(unheard of practically) the Northern Lights appear to the naked eye as more whitish and not like those stunning photos of vivid greens, reds, yellows, or purples. Most photos you see of the lights are not enhanced or filtered manually, but they are a result of the camera lens having the capability to pick up and reveal all available light in a photograph. See below for a comparison of what the camera picks up and what you might be looking at with the naked eye.
In some parts of the world, the Aurora does appear in colors. In my experiences at Beaver Island, Michigan; the lights appear as pearly, sometimes shimmering, silver white glows in the sky. On occasion, they do shimmer or appear in waves, streaks or even what is referred to as piano keys across the sky.
My experience comes from countless nights over five years, waiting and watching in the night for Aurora Borealis to appear. Hours spent, mostly alone, at Beaver Island’s St. James Township campground, which is not only a beautiful, isolated campground in the woods on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and several islands; one can also view the southern shores of Michigan’s upper peninsula. The photo below is a shot of Lansing Shoals Lighthouse, a white flashing light and red channel markers, plus extravagant light pollution shooting upwards from Port Inland and other towns on that shoreline.
Also shown here in black and white is this view typical to me, in a Kp4 or Kp5 scenario, with towers of light reaching up to the skies. The camera picks up the vibrant colors that are realistically viewed as towers of white light, varying in size and scope. What you are seeing are shimmering waves of geo-magnetic light that come from the effects of sunspots and other scientific measurements of solar windspeed and more.
What I love the most is the hours of glorious time I have spent in the night, absorbing the appearance of the skies as they change in varying weather and light conditions. This time spent has made me aware more of what the skies look like under regular conditions and better capable of spotting the Northern Lights when they are showing off.
The photos below show the Northern Lights in pale glows at a Kp3, with muted pastel tones. Or delightfully colored skies from near-Aurora conditions. Some of the Aurora glows stem from a strong Kp prediction that does not develop because the other measurements of solar windspeed do not develop simultaneously with the other predictions.
What I love, is seeing the dark skies filled with stars in all phases of the moon, knowing as it grows to a full moon, (which we will have in a waning state this Christmas); the chance of seeing intense colors lessens. Yet, in very, dark, and unpolluted areas like Beaver Island, it is still possible to see the Aurora in areas with streetlamps and other light-polluted areas. Shown below, a grand spread of Aurora towers revealed above the streetlights of Beaver Island’s harbor area.
Does luck figure into the equation? I think so. The first time I saw Northern Lights on Beaver Island, I was scouting and photographing Comet Neowise. The Aurora appeared faintly behind the comet. I had a brand-new camera that I did not know how to use so I would say that was a lucky shot.
My advice to aurora seekers, overall? Be prepared to enjoy the night. Enjoy your company, the weather, the adventure, and the excitement of night sky viewing. Chances are, you will not see the lights at all due to varying factors mentioned above. Then again, with the help of predicting apps and websites…you just might. And isn’t that the adventure?