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Armchair trips to see the Northern Lights offer hope for Alaska

Peruvian musician Victor Alarcon shoots a music video in the Finnish Arctic for his single called 'Aurora Boreal' (Northern Lights) near Rovaniemi

Peruvian musician Victor Alarcon shoots a music video in the Finnish Arctic for his single called 'Aurora Boreal' (Northern Lights) near Rovaniemi

Published Apr 4, 2020

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INTERNATIONAL - There is a heart-palpitating moment when you first see the colors of the Northern Lights. It takes some luck and lots of patience. 

After hours of staring at a dark sky, bundled up in enough layers to keep your fingers and toes from frosting over, they show up like a miracle It’s a show so magical it seems as if some greater force is trying to speak to you through pyrotechnics.

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Seeing the aurora borealis is an unforgettable in-person experience, but it’s also one of the easiest to have from the comforts of your home. The lights are impervious to the Covid-19 coronavirus, as are the live webcams set up in Alaska’s permafrost interior.

The timing for an armchair trip is particularly favorable. In Fairbanks, Alaska, tourism officials market a northern lights season from Aug. 21 to Apr. 21, when they shine brightest. Prime viewing is in early fall, late winter, and early spring—as in: right now. 

A virtual trip to see the lights is possible, thanks to enterprising scientists and locals, who are figuring out how to share the lights with visitors, even if they can’t fly in.

Fairbanks-based power line operator Troy Birdsall, for instance, replicates the experience with a home-built aurora webcam and a live-streaming server. 

The $20 annual subscription price, he says, is just to cover the costs for his equipment. Ronn Murray, a photography tour operator based in the Goldsteam Valley near Fairbanks, does something similar; his wide-view, high-quality DSLR camera is hooked up to a laptop setup that refreshes every 45 seconds, streaming to a site funded by donations. And the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks operates a webcam that offers a full look at the sky overhead, updating every 5 seconds from 2:30 a.m. to 11:11 a.m. East Coast time.

FILE PHOTO: The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) is seen in the sky in Ivalo of Lapland

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For Birdsall, sharing the lights is personal. “Aurora viewing, photography, and the website were a big part of my life when I was growing up,” he says. He started taking portraits of aurora visitors as a teen, in 1998, and he launched the webcam with his late father in 2003. Now, with enough public interest sprouting to fund the site’s growth, he says it’s a labor of love that’s worth the investment.  

How It Stacks Up

My first time seeing the lights took place up above the Arctic Circle, near the town of Wiseman (population: 11). The -50F temperatures were so unforgiving they made your eyeballs ache. There was one place to warm up: in an old, heated gold miner’s cabin whose owner regaled a dozen visitors with stories about life off the grid and hunting for dinner meat.

Outside, hired spotters huddled around a double-barrel stove, focusing their eyes on the dark, clear sky. You never know when the aurora borealis will appear.

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It was after midnight when the cabin door finally swung open with word of a sighting. Everyone hustled out energetically, grabbing cameras and tripods. Those without heavy equipment whipped out phones loaded with special northern lights photo apps.

That’s when we saw them: brightly colored green ribbons swirling across the horizon as particles of dust from the sun (known as solar wind) collided with the Earth’s atmosphere. I had to remind myself to breathe as I stood gaping.

To our naked eyes, this was actually a subtle, monochromatic display—visually arresting, if lacking in the pinks, purples, and blues of brighter showings. Our cameras, however, saw something else: An open aperture and extended exposure, it turns out, is usually what morphs milky slashes in the sky into curlicued bands of color (and excellent marketing material).

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Seeing the northern lights virtually nixes the artistry of capturing your own images. (Screenshots don’t count.) But it also nixes the freezing cold temperatures, the waiting game, and the risk of not seeing the lights at all. Webcam equipment offers photographically enhanced sightings; depending on which site you choose, you can glue yourself to the screen with prolonged anticipation or watch highlight reels that cut to the chase. If you miss them one night, tuning in again requires no further investment. And putting off an actual trip can have its advantages: The lights brighten and fade in 11-year intervals as the sun’s magnetic field (and solar winds) reverse. This is a tough year; 2025 and 2026 will be the “solar maximum” peaks of the next cycle.

Why a Virtual Visit Matters

Fairbanks’s geographic position on the so-called auroral oval puts it in the same prime position for lights viewing as Iceland, northern Canada, and Scandinavia. Visit for just three nights, says Deb Hickok, president and chief executive officer of Explore Fairbanks, and you’ll have a 90% chance of seeing the lights. (Anchorage, meanwhile, lies outside the oval, though it’s been busy building a fledgling aurora business.)

All this represents a big—and growing—economic opportunity for Alaska, a state whose tourism industry is primarily built on more than 2 million summertime cruise visitors. This year was set to present a record number of winter arrivals: some 70,000 guests in Fairbanks alone, collectively accounting for 45% of the city’s direct tourism expenditures. The lights, as it seems, turn out longer stays and higher spends, both critical factors for a sustainable tourism industry.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, you could hunt for the aurora while sitting in the warm waters of a hot springs, dog mushing, ice fishing, or on $729-per-person overnights in the Arctic. These high-priced experiences will help both the city and state rebound when the pandemic ends, though cruise tourism faces an extremely uncertain future. 

The hope is that digital tourism will showcase the region’s bonafides enough to whet travelers’ appetites, making 2021 the year that breaks records instead. Says David Pruhs of Fairbanks’s City Council: “We’re the U.S. capital for Northern Lights. It’s sort of like choosing between Champagne or sparkling wine. We serve Champagne up here.”

Plan Your Virtual Trip

The Geophysical Institute has an overhead full-sky view, plus a link that shows the closing 30 minutes and—if you fall asleep—a fast next-morning video.

The Geophysical Institute has an overhead full-sky view, plus a link that shows the closing 30 minutes and—if you fall asleep—a fast next-morning video.

Aurora Webcam is Troy Birdsall’s home-built setup at the top of Cleary Summit, a popular viewing spot with locals. Annual subscription: $19.99.

Aurora Chasers is located in Goldstream Valley, about 15 miles from Fairbanks. To keep the site going, donations are accepted.

Explore Fairbanks has an Aurora Tracker that amalgamates information from the Geophysical Institute and other sources and rates the daily chances of seeing the lights. The tourism agency also posts locally shot aurora videos on its YouTube channel.

The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center forecasts everything from solar wind to cloudless skies, all strategic insights for when to tune in to the night sky.

Want to make a donation in exchange for your virtual visit? The local United Way chapter has set up a Covid-19 relief fund to help shore up nonprofit agencies in Interior Alaska.

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