Where are the best places to see the lights?
Northern lights can be seen almost anywhere in Minnesota and throughout the northern latitudes when the conditions are right. Viewers outside of cities have a distinct advantage.
“There are members of Great Lakes Aurora Hunters who live really far north and in rural areas,” said Melissa Kaelin, a GLAH member in St. Paul. “They have the luxury of seeing the lights when they walk out their door, just by looking up. The challenge in the metro area is that we’re a huge desert of light pollution.”
People who live in populated areas often need to drive an hour or more to find locations that are dark enough to get a good look at the lights. Planning for those trips is one reason GLAH members are eager to have accurate forecasts as early in the day as possible.
GLAH keeps files on its site showing viewing locations recommended by members. Near the Twin Cities, favorite locations are in Sherburne and Chisago counties, with a few in the Stillwater area.
For photographers, there are challenges beyond light pollution. They don’t want to photograph the lights only, they want locations that provide interesting elements for the foreground of their photos; water, trees, barns and bridges are frequently used.
“I can’t tell you how many miles I have put on my car driving around during the day, a map app open on my phone, looking for spots,” said Debbie Center, a GLAH member in Nevis, Minn. “It can be hard to find a good northern exposure with water that doesn’t have streetlights or power lines and that is open to the public or not on private property. You can do it, but it requires scouting at some time other than the middle of the night.”
How do you know if you’re seeing the lights?
“Most of the people in the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters just want to go out and look at the lights,” said Bob Conzemius, an atmospheric scientist and member of the group who lives in Grand Rapids, Minn. “They don’t want to spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out the science, and because of how GLAH works, with people reporting the lights as they come out, they don’t really need to.”
For people who might be trying to see the lights for the first time, Conzemius offers these tips:
“Look for a diffuse, broad arc of light along the northern horizon. The gradient of light reverses near the horizon. You’ll see a brighter area near the horizon, but right along the horizon, it will be darker.
“It also helps to be familiar with the human light sources in the area so you can distinguish their brightness from the auroral glow. This evening, I am south of Grand Rapids. The light pollution haze above the city is brighter than the aurora, but I can still see the gradient of light (darker right along the horizon) that tells me the auroras are shining but very dimly. A camera shot can confirm that the arc you see is actually green (the aurora). City lights will either be white from newer LED lights or orange from sodium vapor lamps,” Conzemius said.
Where to get aurora information