Can I see the northern lights-5 days free to drive from Louisville KY?
June 28, 2016 7:20 AM   Subscribe

Please tell me all the stars are aligned to do this or am I crazy. I am off the next five days. Thanks.
posted by usermac to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Doubtful. the aurora forecast for the next few days doesn't look strong, and you've only got 2 days to drive far enough north to look. You'd have trouble getting far enough north for it to be worthwhile.
posted by cosmicbandito at 7:25 AM on June 28, 2016

Also, it's only just past midsummer and the nights are very short in the North - in Winnipeg, for example, twilight ends at 11:30PM and starts up again at 3:30AM.

You need solar activity, darkness, and clear weather in order to see the Northern Lights. It looks like solar activity is low, and there's just not a lot of dark this time of year.
posted by mskyle at 7:35 AM on June 28, 2016

My understanding is that, to see the northern lights at their best, you need to be in a place which has astronomical twilight (ie the sun must be at least 18 degrees below the horizon). This diagram lets you read off the latitude of the place you are expecting to view from and then establish whether it will be dark enough. Here in Scotland - at a modest 53 degrees north - we won't have any astronomical twilight for several more weeks.

Better to wait for a few months.
posted by rongorongo at 7:43 AM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I agree that it doesn't seem all that likely, but if you have the attitude "this will be an adventure, and I might not get to see the lights but it'll still be fun", then here's what I would recommend:

Your best bet would be to drive due north, either into Canada or into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and camp there. Lake Superior Provincial Park (in Ontario) has very dark skies and is about 10 hours of driving from Louisville. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore isn't quite as dark on the dark-sky maps, but it would be easier to get an unobstructed view of the northern horizon (which you'll probably need — as has been noted above, solar activity is not going to be high enough to give you an overhead display anywhere you would be able to drive in two days.)

The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks says that for Thursday through Saturday, auroral activity will be moderate:
Auroral activity will be moderate. Weather permitting, moderate displays will be ... visible low on the horizon as far south as Prince Rupert, Calgary, Minot, Bemidji, Stevens Point, Traverse City and Quebec City, Canada.
Both Pictured Rocks and Lake Superior Provincial Park are well north of Traverse City.

Oh, and check the weather forecast at your destination before you commit to doing this. It'd suck to spend your vacation stuck in a tent in the rain.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:48 AM on June 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

The aurora forecast that I use shows there may be some activity on Sunday, and Winnipeg is probably the place you should go. However, it's an 18 hour drive or so, and Sunday's forecast is for clouds and storms so even if the aurora comes out, you might not see it.
Keep in mind in the southern part of the aurora range, often you are just seeing small wisps of white that are barely noticeable, or tiny bits of color along the horizon. It's possible you would see them but it would likely be very disappointing.

If you really want a sure-thing to see aurora, go to Iceland. You'll need at least 5 days there though, to try to control for the forecast. They aren't reliable, and even with 5 days you could miss it.

I live pretty far north and I watch for aurora pretty frequently. I would say south of Canada you will see a good show once every 2-3 years. Even on high activity nights we don't see too much in the US partly due to light pollution. It's unlikely you would ever see the huge sky-filling aurora as you see pictures of in the US.
posted by littlewater at 7:48 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just FYI, I spend a couple weeks every summer about two hours North of Ottawa, I have been doing this for twenty years, everyone in the house has a standing order to wake everyone else up in the event of an aurora, and I have never once seen an aurora there. The only time I've ever seen them was during a freak solar storm when they were visible from the Boston suburbs, and it was just some red spikes pointing upwards.

I pay attention to these things and watch for it when there's even a slight possibility. Between the latitude and the light pollution, it's very much a once-or-twice in a lifetime thing. I follow an Aurora watch on Twitter and even when they forecast a storm the probability map almost never shows it south of northern Maine.

The Mount Washington Observatory (on the 6200 foot summit of Mt. Washington in NH) occasionally shows photos of a nice Aurora but there's nowhere to stay up there unless you're affiliated with the observatory. If you're an experienced hiker you can hike up there at night when the weather isn't too bad but even then the aurora is a very rare event.

I totally feel you. I've given serious consideration to planning a trip just to see an Aurora, and it would probably be Iceland.
posted by bondcliff at 8:01 AM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, your biggest problem is going to be your lack of darkness. The northern lights are going to come within driving distance of KY, but the're going to do it in the winter.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:23 AM on June 28, 2016

Found myself in a similar situation a few Thanksgivings ago and asked this question.

Didn't make it that year but went to the resort axismundi recommended over this last Thanksgiving [US]. Missed the lights but had an awesome vacation anyway. I think the best time is late summer and into fall or well into winter. This site has some great information on viewing opportunities. It's concerned with the greater Edmonton area but if you make it to a similar latitude it is as good a guide as any I've run across. Also noteworthy are its predictions based on historical data.
posted by Fezboy! at 8:31 AM on June 28, 2016

I saw the aurora in Louisiana once, and that was only because Mt. Saint Helens had somewhat recently exploded and pumped the atmosphere full of charged ash particles. (Also the sunsets were pretty rad)
So yeah, kind of a once in a lifetime experience. Have also seen them in upstate new york and lake tahoe (dark skies but not hugely far north)-rare occurances. If you really want to get serious:
1. Talk to the airlines about open-ended tickets (if they still have them) they were/are? expensive but let you leave like...whenever.
2. Check out nasa/etc for space weather updates...the trace or soho spacecraft websites probably have the most info/links
3. Get really serious and get tickets for Antarctica and take me with you.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:47 AM on June 28, 2016

I just spent a week at 66 degrees north (Iceland) and it didn't even get DARK at night, much less dark enough to see aurora. And in North America, 66 degrees north is REALLY FREAKING FAR NORTH, into the northern reaches of Canada. Like beyond where roads go, where you have to take a bush plane.

Do this particular roadtrip in late fall / early winter, and something else now. Sorry.
posted by intermod at 12:54 PM on June 28, 2016

Thank you all for the advise. Because of it the trip is off. Hats off to metafilter for the amazing community.
posted by usermac at 8:17 AM on June 29, 2016

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