The Aurora Borealis was named by scientist Pierre Gassendi in 1621, the Latin term translates to “northern lights” which is the term more commonly used. Aurora was the Roman goddess of Dawn (or light) and Borealis was a Greek name for north wind. Many earlier humans attached superstitions to its appearance, some thinking that the gods were sending messages, others thought it was the pathway for spirits to reach heaven, and some gold miners in Alaska thought it was a reflection of the biggest pot of gold to be found! It is a purely scientific phenomenon that lures so many of us for purely non-scientific reasons.
In a not so scientific nutshell, the Aurora happens because of the earth’s sun. When the sun has a period of high activity, the earth has its show two days later. The magnetic forces of our earth’s poles pull these charged particles along the magnetic lines and create the awesome display. Color and size all depend on the combination of the sun's activity, the magnetic pull, the energetic particles, and the force between the magnetic poles on the earth.
The best places to view the Aurora would be along the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, being the areas closest to the magnetic poles and therefore the areas of greatest concentration of the activity. The best viewing times will be September, October, February and March when the earths tilt on its axis puts the magnetic poles in the best positioning. It is said that viewing can happen from Fairbanks, Alaska an average of 240 days a year. Its location is so active, the University of Alaska in Fairbanks issues weekly forecasts in the winter.
I witnessed the Aurora Borealis in Dawson City, Yukon. On the cruise-tour of Alaska and Yukon, we spent one night in Dawson City before boarding a yacht and traveling up the Yukon River to Eagle Alaska, following the path that many gold miners traveled during the Gold Rush days. Our hotel had the option of setting up a “wake up call” should the lights make their appearance. The call came and we knocked on the walls between rooms to get everyone up. Clambering coats over our nightclothes, and grabbing cameras, we ventured out into the cold. One reason it is suggested to take pictures with a tripod is because the shutter needs to be open a long time to get the picture. One would have to have a very steady hand to do this. The other reason to have a tripod, I believe, is because of the shivering that is caused either by the cold or the awe created from viewing this wonder. I don’t know what is more inspiring; the lights themselves, dancing across the sky, or the calm eerie quiet that surrounds you. Not unlike 4th of July fireworks, the wait for the next color exhibit shows and then the next, and the next. Unlike the fireworks, no bang, no noise, just the air as it moves through you and the lights. A dance is the best description I can come up with. Swaying in one moment, jitterbug in the next, moving across the sky in a combination of the waltz and the two step.
Scientific reasons aside, the Aurora Borealis is a show that speaks to the heart and soul of human beings. If timing could be made right, it should be on your bucket list of things to experience in Alaska.