Do you think you have to travel to Finland or Norway to see the Northern Lights? Think again The upper Midwest, from northern Minnesota to the Michigan Upper Peninsula and beyond, offers glimpses of the ethereal scene. Rainy Lake in northern Minnesota – the gateway to Voyageurs National Park – can be seen up to 200 episodes of aurora each year, weather permitting.
First, an explanation: The Earth’s magnetic field is weaker above and around the poles, over a distance known as the auroral oval. Along the curved edges, charged particles released by the sun’s solar flares enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with oxygen and nitrogen, creating a breathtaking view. Although the magic takes place far to the north, the Auroral Oval can occasionally be seen as far as Cleveland and Chicago to the south.
“It’s harder to see them further south, but if you have your spot and the conditions are right, why not try?” says Jim Thomas, who first saw the light show in Wisconsin two decades ago; He later became a leading Northern Lights expert in the Midwest and editor of the aurora hunting website Soft Serve News.
Due to the exceptionally long Northern Lights season in the Midwest, summer night darkness means you can catch the spectacle in August (and often earlier). Aurora hunters have already reported Aurora successes in the summer of 2020, including a late June sighting at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and several July sightings in the region.
Comet NEOWISE splits the sky with brightly colored aurors over Little Sable Point Light in Mears, Michigan.
Photo by Nick Irwin
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Improve your chances
Increasing your aurora happiness begins with understanding the peak conditions. Thomas recommends waiting for a clear night; Clouds cloud the sky and can obscure the aurors. Darkness is also the key. Nights around the new moon are better than bright full moon nights.
However, a dark, cloudless sky does not guarantee sighting. One of the most important factors is the aurora strength as measured by the Kp index (an indicator of geomagnetic activity). The Kp range is from zero to nine, with zero being weak and nine being a geomagnetic storm – the number aurora hunters dream of. Thomas recommends keeping an eye on not only your Kp number, but also the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ovation card. This tool will help you determine whether or not the storm is visible from your area.
Tracking storms is especially important for those chasing the lights in 2020. The sun follows an 11-year cycle of activity and is currently in the solar minimum, the lowest level of activity.
“It’s a numbers game and luck,” says Thomas. “It’s not something like the Grand Canyon that will always be there. The aurora may or may not appear. You need to keep up with the predictions, work them out, and go through some disappointments before you see them. “
(Related: Here are seven magical places around the world to see aurors.)
Where to go in the Midwest
Whether it’s Lapland or the Great Lakes, successful aurora hunt requires dark skies with limited light pollution. Maps like Dark Site Finder come in handy when looking for ideal locations, or you can rely on proven dark targets like Headlands International Dark Sky Park on the Strait of Mackinac, which separates Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. This International Dark Sky Park, a designation acquired through rigorous light pollution tests, is granted to public or private areas with exceptional starry skies and nighttime environments.
The US Voyageurs National Park on the border with Canada puts on quite a show, with the lights reflecting off the park’s 30 lakes. Further east, under remote, low-light pollution skies in Cook County, Minnesota, there are numerous hiking trails overlooking the aurora and routes for road trips.
Wisconsin’s main attraction, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, is the state’s northernmost point – which makes this collection of 20 forested islands perfect for viewing the Northern Lights. And Michigan’s wild and rugged Upper Peninsula, including Copper Harbor, Marquette, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, is ideal with its near-total darkness.
(Related: These are the best stargazing sites in the world.)
But the opportunities for Northern Lights in the lower 48 states don’t stop there. When conditions are right, Aurors can dance over most of the states along the northern US border. Some of the best spots are Acadia National Park in Maine, Glacier National Park in Montana, and Mount Washington Valley in New Hampshire. Of course, the higher the latitude, the better the aurora chances are. That’s why avid Northern Lights hunters frequently visit places like Fairbanks, Alaska, a popular aurora destination just 200 miles from the Arctic Circle.
On the northernmost tip of Minnesota, Voyageurs National Park is a watery wonderland with pristine lakes, large fish, and incredible night skies. Filmmakers Will Pattiz and Jim Pattiz capture the beauty of Voyageurs National Park in this mesmerizing time-lapse. The Short Film Showcase features exceptional short videos created by internet filmmakers and selected by National Geographic editors. The filmmakers created the content presented and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.
Are you looking for additional insight on how to chase nature’s light show? The Great Lakes Aurora Hunters, a 56,000-strong Facebook community focused on Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, has everything from viewing locations and night sky camera settings to aurora warnings and hunting incentives.
Stephanie Vermillion is a travel and outdoor journalist, filmmaker, and photographer. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.