AURORA BOREALIS & AUSTRALIS CHASING AND VIEWING GUIDE: For more links and information than you will ever need, look below this post.
Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights): found at the polar regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
Aurora Australis (Southern Lights): found at the polar regions of the Southern Hemisphere.
As of this writing on September 14, 2014 we should be coming down from a very weak and confusing solar maximum for Sunspot Cycle 24. Each solar cycle is roughly an 11 year heartbeat of our Sun and with each Solar Max comes the opportunity to view one of the universes greatest light shows known the world over as the aurora.
Before we get too far, it’s worth noting that in many cases even during the years of solar minimum, auroral activity can still occur due to the occasional flare, CME or strong solar wind. It’s just much more frequent for these events to occur during the years encompassing solar maximum due to the extreme activity of the Sun during those times.
HOW DO WE KNOW THE STRENGTH OF SOLAR FLARES & CME’S?
It all starts with NASA’s “Living with a Star” mission and the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) http://sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov/ as well as the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/ and the twin Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) http://stereo.gsfc.nasa.gov/.
These spacecraft are positioned in a way that allows for viewing the Sun 24/7/365. As sunspots rotate into view they’re given a catalog number and watched closely. Sunspots frequently unleash coronal mass ejections (CME’s) of varying energies and once in a while they turn their barrels at Earth and fire at us.
Solar flares are given an X-ray energy rating and placed on the solar flare classification index. The index is a five (5) letter X-ray scale which runs from A (lowest energy), B, C, M and X (highest energy). Each of these letters represents a 10 fold energy increase over the previous one and uses a logarithmic scale from 1 to 9 which means an X has ten times the energy of an M and 100 times more energy than a C. The only deviation to this scale is at the high end of the X-class scale as there is no set limit of 9; it just keeps going and these are often referred to as super X-class flares. Just for perspective, the largest flare ever recorded was on November 4, 2003 (Solar Cycle 23) when the GOES-12 satellite recorded a peak of X-28!
The Planetary Kp-Index is a global geomagnetic energy index with a logarithmic 10 point grading system ranging from 0-9. Typically levels of 0-4 are very quiet with aurora visible only near the poles. Kp-5 and above represent storm level geomagnetic activity and offer an opportunity for mid-northern latitude sky watchers to see the legendary aurora.
The NOAA G-Scale is a five-level solar storm level scale ranging from G1 (weakest energy) to G5 (strongest energy) and it works hand in hand with the Kp-index. A G-1 rating represents a minor storm and correlates with a Kp rating of 5. A Kp-5 is where storm level is reached on the Kp-index. The two then travel together right on through bot their maximums of G5 & Kp-9.
Another scale is the Radio Blackout Scale and it is also a five-level scale ranging from R1 (weakest) to R5 (strongest) energies. Radio blackouts are a result of X-ray and high UV radiation released during solar flares and they primarily affect high frequency communications on the sunlit side of Earth. This scale is independent and doesn’t correlate with the Kp or G indices.
The Kp & G scales are just components to aid in hunting down the aurora. Your hemisphere and latitude (aside from a clear dark sky) will be your most important points. In the Northern Hemisphere the peak months for aurora viewing are September – April when the poles in the north are cloaked in longer nights. The higher your latitude (closer to the North Pole), the more important this becomes. As far as the KP Scale, it would take a Kp of about 6 to reach down to the border of the United States. Mainland Europe would need a Kp of around 7 at least.
Auroral Map Northern Hemisphere: http://services.swpc.noaa.gov/images/aurora-forecast-northern-hemisphere.png
In the Southern Hemisphere it’s always a difficult undertaking to view the aurora australis due to the fact that there simply isn’t much habitable land near the South Polar region. The primary times of year for observations in the southern hemisphere are from March – September when the southern polar region is dark. Again, as with the northern hemisphere the closer to the poles you are the more important this becomes. It takes a KP number of 6 just to reach parts of Tasmania and New Zealand and a KP number of 9 just to reach Melbourne Australia. Not impossible by any means, just not as frequent.
Auroral Map Southern Hemisphere: http://services.swpc.noaa.gov/images/aurora-forecast-southern-hemisphere.png
AURORA WATCHING BIG 3 (assuming there’s an incoming CME):
1 Clear Sky: Never take long trips or plan to spend many hours outside night sky watching without first checking the weather. Clear skies are rule 1; if you can’t see the sky, you may as well stay at home and have a bonfire.
2 Dark Sky: Night; free of town & city lights and stay away from gibbous moons if possible as viewing anything in the night sky during these times besides the Moon is pretty tough.
3 Planning: We all know Mr. Murphy is always nearby so please do your best to pack a full supply of patience and understanding in the very possible event that you drive for hours just to spend an entire night outside and see nothing. That’s just how it goes in aurora hunting as it’s a collection of best guesses and forecasts rolled into an experience.
To mitigate these situations research a trip thoroughly and research things like weather and the Kp & G indices right up until it’s time to leave and even while you’re on location assuming you still have service. Speaking of service; always tell someone where you are going because when you’re in very high or low latitudes and or in between mountains etc. your phone won’t work very well if at all depending on how far from civilization you travel. Besides that, use your head & the adult rule. Don’t be that person who didn’t bring a coat, hat or gloves into the freezing night and or the person who didn’t eat all day or bring any food so you then force those who did plan properly to suffer for your ignorance. This happens every time in large groups, especially if you are bringing folks who are inexperienced in these types of outings. It benefits everyone to brief rookies on what they will be facing and helping them gather items they will need to be prepared.
Space Weather: http://www.spaceweather.com/
Solar Ham: http://www.solarham.net/index.htm
NASA SOHO Space Weather Center: http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/spaceweather/
NOAA Space Weather prediction Center: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/
NOAA 30 Minute Forecast: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/30-minute-aurora-forecast
NOAA Space Weather Dashboard: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/communities/space-weather-enthusiasts
Geophysical Institute Aurora Forecast: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast
NOAA KP 3 Hour Prediction: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/planetary-k-index
SpaceWeatherLive Data: http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en
SpaceWeatherLive 3 Day Forecast: http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/reports/3-day-forecast
NOAA Space Weather Scales: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/noaa-scales-explanation
SpaceWeatherLive Scales: http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/help/the-kp-index
SpaceWeatherLive: Radio Blackouts: http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/help/what-are-radio-blackouts
KP Index Tutorial: http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/auroral-activity/kp
Solar Terrestrial Dispatch: http://www.spacew.com/
Aurora Forecast (soft serve news): http://www.softservenews.com/Aurora.htm
NOAA Current Solar Data: http://www.n3kl.org/sun/noaa.html
Aurora Hunters: http://www.aurorahunter.com/aurora-prediction.php
Berkley Space Weather KP Index: http://sprg.ssl.berkeley.edu/forecast/currentshelp.html
NASA KP Scale Tutorial: http://sunearthday.nasa.gov/swac/tutorials/mag_kp.php
KP Scale and K Index Explained: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/info/Kindex.html