For many people, the natural phenomena of the northern lights is a bucket list item. The glow that sometimes lights up the sky above the Whitefish Chain here in Minnesota is an ethereal sight that is entirely unforgettable. Curtains of greenish or pinkish light dance across the sky, moving up and down in bars or ribbons that grow brighter and softer.
The Whitefish Chain happens to be far enough north to see the northern lights far more frequently than many places on earth, and the area's low light pollution is an added bonus.
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are caused by solar storms, according to earthsky.org. Even though the sun is 93 million miles away, large storms send charged solar particles hurtling through space. When the earth is in the path of those particles, they react with the earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, causing atoms in the earth’s atmosphere to light up. Different gasses in the atmosphere create different colors of northern lights: oxygen creates a green light, while nitrogen causes blue or pink colors.
The geomagnetic activity that causes the northern lights is measured on an index called “Kp.” Kp values range from 0-9, 0 being the weakest and 9 being the strongest. In the Whitefish Chain area, northern lights can be seen when the Kp value is 5 or higher.
The Whitefish Chain presents a good chance for viewing northern lights not only because of its northerly location, but also because it is far away from the glow of city lights, which can drown out the northern lights.
A clear night with little light from the moon makes for even higher chances, and long nights mean more opportunity to see the northern lights as well. The best viewing times of the night are between 9:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. Any place with a northerly view is a good place to start looking for the northern lights.
Often the northern lights start as only a faint glow in the sky to the north that is easily mistaken for city lights; however, there are no cities north of the Whitefish Chain with lights bright enough to pollute a clear night sky. The city of Crosslake, which borders the Whitefish Chain, has few streetlights by design. That way, residents can see something increasingly rare- a night sky filled with stars and unpolluted by city lights. If you see even a faint glow to the north, wait to see if the lights begin to develop into bar or ribbon shapes.
Northern lights can also be predicted in the same sense that weather is predicted-- except this is space weather. Several websites, such as spaceweather.com, make predictions for when the northern lights will be active. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also forecasts the northern lights here. On Twitter, @Aurora_Alerts tweets when the northern lights might be active and lists the Kp values at that time. Any Kp value of 5 or over means the Whitefish Chain area has a chance to see the lights.
On Facebook, Great Lakes Aurora Hunters (a public group) can be a good resource for learning about the aurora borealis and seeing others’ photos of the northern lights.
For millennia the northern lights have captured the attention and imagination of those who gaze at the glow in the night sky. According to space.com, French cave paintings from 30,000 years ago illustrate the northern lights. Superstitions have historically surrounded the northern lights, as people believed they brought messages of war or destruction. Though today the northern lights are largely understood and explained, they remain a spectacular sight to see.