Set yourself up for success viewing this elusive and rare phenomenon.

Northern Lights at a Remote Lake

Try to get away from city lights. (You don't have to get this remote, though.) Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash.

Here’s the bad news about the northern lights: They’re not like an eclipse, which can be predicted far in advance. The good news, though, is that we do usually get some kind of a heads-up. When the sun’s surface throws off a flare of energy, scientists notice and send out alerts, knowing that that energy will meet the Earth’s magnetic field in 1-3 days, and that the resulting reaction will cause the northern lights to appear. If the flare is big enough that it might cause aurorae visible well below the arctic circle, you’ll probably hear about it on the news with at least a day’s notice. (You can also proactively monitor northern lights activity globally using this tracker here. Tracking and notification apps can help, too.)

So what should you do if you see such an alert? The simple answer is to look north after dark. If you look towards the big dipper, you’re on the right track. To get more precise, follow the line made by the two stars at the end of the big dipper’s bowl. The first bright star your imaginary line bumps into is the north star. This is the region of the sky you should be monitoring for anything out of the ordinary.

The Big Dipper
Follow the line made by the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl to orient yourself towards north.

Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

The northern lights can appear at just about any angle of elevation, so a perfectly flat northern horizon isn’t essential. Better you go somewhere dark than somewhere with an unobstructed view, though obviously you’d ideally want a location that offers both. Moonless nights are best because a moon much larger than a sliver can produce enough light to drown out the aurora. You can’t do anything about the phases of the moon, of course, but you can find out moon rising and setting times here to strategize the timing of your observing session.

You won’t need any special equipment to see the northern lights. Binoculars, telescopes, and wacky glasses like you might have purchased to see the solar eclipse last spring will only hinder your view. The best thing you can bring outside with you (aside from warm clothing, of course) is your patience. The apparitions can be fleeting and subtle, and probably won’t be as bright as you’re expecting. (And they may not happen at all—as with any storm forecast, things don’t always work out as predicted.)

Once outside, take at least 10 minutes to let your eyes fully adjust to the dark, resisting the temptation to fill your waiting time with entertainment found on a screen—the bright light will compromise your night vision and make it impossible to discern the dim tendrils of light shimmying across the sky.

Taking a Photo of the Northern Lights with a Phone

Photo by Jonas Svidras on Pexels

Paradoxically, though, while looking at your phone may make the aurora borealis hard to see, using that phone to take a photo can actually capture them more dramatically. Cameras, even the one in your cell, can collect more light than your eyes. You may be surprised to find that a photo of a sky that offered only a dim, diffuse glow in real time shows definition and intensity that was invisible to you in the moment.

What, then, shows the true aurora, your eyes or your camera? My advice is to not waste too much energy trying to wrap your head around this question. If both a camera and your unaided eyes are available to you, then experience the northern lights in both those ways.

But once you’ve gotten that Insta-impressive shot, put the phone away, let your eyes readjust to the dark, and let the real-life experience unfold in front of you. Because a photograph can expose colors and shapes that you didn’t realize were there, which is a wickedly cool trick. But nothing can replace the deeply stirring experience of sitting quietly under the night sky when suddenly it starts doing something you’ve never seen before. It’ll make you glad you are connected enough to this modern world to have gotten the news of an impending northern light show—and very glad you disconnected and stepped outside for a moment, too.