By Rachel Rolland, Great Lakes Aurora Hunters™
Did you know that the Straits of Mackinac has the same geomagnetic latitude as southern portion of Norway, Sweden and Finland, which is just south of the some of the best Northern Lights viewing in the world?
Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are a spectacular natural phenomenon that are hard to predict, often rare to see and nearly impossible to forget. Their occurrence is tied to the activity of the sun, and the solar wind caused by the eruption of spots on the sun’s surface. They occur in an oval that surrounds the geomagnetic north pole, which is south of the geographic north pole. This allows for sky watchers in the northern U.S. to see this magnificent night sky display—including the Mackinaw area. The Northern Lights can appear as soon as 30-45 minutes after sunset but are more likely to be seen during the darkest time of the night, typically from midnight to 2am. However, the Northern Lights are not out every night.
The Northern Lights are caused when charged particles from the sun interact with earth’s magnetosphere, and these disturbances are ranked on a scale of 0-9, known as the Kp scale. A Kp of 5 or above will usually bring the lights to the Mackinaw area, but it’s not out of the question to see the lights out when the Kp is at a 4. There are numerous additional factors that contribute to aurora visibility but knowing the Kp is a good place to start.
A successful northern lights hunt requires patience, so be prepared to spend a fair amount of time watching and waiting for the lights to appear. There is an ebb and flow to the aurora, and it can often involve hours of waiting for a jaw-dropping period of heightened activity, known as a substorm. If you’re only seeing the faintest, pale glow on the northern horizon—keep waiting! This low glow could be a great sign of things to come. If conditions are right, that low glow will rise, brighten and burst with ripples, pillars and waves of shimmering light.
To the naked eye, the Northern Lights range from a pale, white glow to a variety of visible colors depending on the brightness of the aurora at the time. A camera will pick up more of the color than the naked eye is able to see, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t see colors during stronger storms. The lights will primarily be in the northern portion of the sky but can stretch all the way overhead and into the southern skies during intense aurora activity (typically Kp 7+).
After you’ve watched the Northern Lights dance across the Mackinaw sky, you’ll fully understand why the aurora is one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World.” Although a successful aurora hunt requires planning and patience, you will be rewarded with the experience of a lifetime when the aurora ignites the dark night in front of you. It is an incredible and majestic experience that will leave you in total awe of the night sky.
The Great Lakes Aurora Hunters maintains a Facebook page with regular alerts when conditions are prime. Follow them here: www.facebook.com/GLAHalert.