Northern Lights Forecast: Predicting the Aurora Borealis in Michigan

If you are reporting the northern lights, be sure to post on the Michigan Northern Lights Log on Absolute Michigan!


Skyfire, photo by Kevin’s Images

A lot of people end up at Michigan in Pictures every day when searching for the northern lights, and one of the biggest questions I get asked through comments and email is “When and where can I see the Northern Lights in Michigan?”

The Geophysical Institute in Alaska is one of the hotspots for information about viewing the aurora borealis aka the northern lights. In their excellent Aurora FAQ, they answer the question Can you predict when and where there will be aurora?, saying you can, but with less confidence than weather prediction. The aurora is powered by the solar wind, and strong solar winds tend to bring intense auroras.

The Institute’s Auroral Forecast Page presents data on the solar wind forecasts the intensity level of the aurora. You can then check the “Can I see the aurora?” link at the top and also their page on interpreting the aurora, where they offer this advice:

The auroral activity forecast predicts the expected location of the most active auroral forms that can be expected for the given period. Aurora viewing is also affected by a variety of other factors, such as cloud cover, moonlight, and urban light pollution, so what you see will be strongly affected by your particular location and meteorological luck.

The best time to observe aurora is near local midnight, when the most active forms often occur. More precisely, the time to shoot for is an hour or two prior to local geomagnetic midnight, and the forecast maps found here are calculated for that time. If you are a serious aurora watcher, plan to spend the night from about 9 P.M. to 3 A.M. watching for auroral action. Auroral activity tends to come in waves during an evening, which are called auroral substorms. Even during an active period, there will be lulls in which the auroral activity is subdued; however, the patient observer will often see a new burst of activity within an hour or two.

I found that selecting the North Polar view seemed to provide the best view for Michigan, and it appears to me that we need to have an activity level of 3 to see any of the lights in Lower Michigan and 2 for the Upper Peninsula. Based on today’s forecast, it appears that on December 23 we’ll have a chance to see the aurora – if anyone does, please post it here and on the Michigan Northern Lights Log over on Absolute Michigan.

You can see this photo larger and also more shots that Kevin took that night at the James C. Veen Observatory in Grand Rapids in his Astronomy set (slideshow).

For much more Michigan northern lights goodness check out the northern lights category on Michigan in Pictures and the Michigan Tech-based leading page on the northern lights, The Aurora Page. And I might as well slip in this amazing time lapse of the aurora borealis from British Columbia.