Aurora Borealis Denali National Park

The 16 Immutable Laws of Northern Lights Viewing

Alaska, Humor, Photography

Aurora Borealis Denali National Park

It is one of the most awesome sights in nature, but it takes a lot of suffering and luck to see it. 

I have been lucky enough to see the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, several times in Alaska, but in general, watching the lights is less about awe and more about suffering, frustration and failure.

In order to see the northern lights, the conditions must be perfect. It has to be clear, dark, and there must be solar activity since the phenomenon is a result of charged particles from the sun striking the Earth’s atmosphere. I’ve spent many nights suffering in extreme cold, camera mounted on tripod, looking expectantly to the north as hungry animals stirred around me, waiting to see the phenomenon – and coming away with nothing but frostbite and a sleepless night.

Those boring nights waiting around for nothing did give me time to come up with these aurora viewing principles:

The Immutable Laws of Aurora Borealis Viewing

  1. When it is dark and the lights are active, it is cloudy.

  2. When it is clear and dark, there is no solar activity.

  3. Nights with an aurora forecast of ACTIVE OR EXTREME result in a dud so you stay up all night for nothing.

  4. Nights with an aurora forecast of LOW or MODERATE result in dazzling displays of light but you miss it since you are sleeping.

Aurora Forecast Active

This forecast called for active lights, which means nothing probably happened.

  1. When alone in the wilderness waiting for the lights, wild animals (presumably wolves, bears, porcupines and the vicious arctic hare) will be stirring all around making you nervous and afraid and wishing you were with people.

  2. When watching the lights near a group of people, they will be trying to take photos with flash, talking incessantly, kissing loudly, getting drunk (and not sharing) and making you wish you were alone in the woods.

  3. If the lights start to come out and you call your friends, the lights immediately go away and all your friends hate you for waking them up.

  4. If the lights come out and you don’t call your friends, all your friends hate you the next day for not calling.

  5. The coldest, most bitter of nights are reserved for northern light teasing, where the lights act as if they will come out and taunt you with a little taste, tempting you to stay up all night in hopes for something awesome, but end up giving you nothing, which is also a summary of my dating life before I was married.

Aurora Borealis Tease

You can see the lights teasing on the horizon. I think it was -11 that night. I suffered for nothing.

  1. When committing to staying up late to see the lights your boss will have a pile of projects for you next day that will require concentration you don’t have since you didn’t sleep.

  2. If you go to sleep and don’t watch the lights, it will be an incredible light show and no one will bother to call or text to let you know but everyone will rave about it at work the next day. Plus, everyone will be tired, sleepy and unproductive so you have to pick up the slack since no one slept the night before.

  3. When you wake up to pee at night and look outside, you will catch the aurora in a lull of activity and go back to bed, even though just prior to and just after you looked outside the aurora was spectacular.

  4. When you wake up to pee at night and look outside and see aurora activity, by the time you get dressed it will be gone.

  5. All the hot chocolate will be gone when you get home.

  6. When you get a nice night of Aurora it will be a full moon and thus diminish your photography.

  7. When everything is perfect and the lights come out in full force creating a dazzling display overhead, you won’t have your camera.

Aurora Borealis on Full Moon Night

Northern Lights, diminished by the full moon. Blerg.

Northern Lights Photopraphy

Waiting for the lights this night, I got super bored and took long exposure photos of myself.

Star tracks photos

Waiting for the lights does allow you to take star tracks photos. But it isn’t worth suffering in the cold to do so.


Have you ever seen the Northern Lights?


Posted by

Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~

21 thoughts on “The 16 Immutable Laws of Northern Lights Viewing”

  1. It’s nice to see you’re not bitter at all from your experiences. Hopefully you at least got a photo of that vicious hare.

  2. I have seen them growing up in Saskatchewan. Being in the middle of nowhere has some advantages. Your account of waiting for them is hilarious…painful for you…but hilarious for your readers. 🙂

      • I am trying to think of which Bill Bryson’s books he spends weeks in Norway waiting. Similar hilarity. 🙂 Good Luck tonight! I look forward to the photos.:)

      • It was the Neither here nor there book, which wasn’t his best work, but I did like that chapter.

        A walk in the woods, the first half especially, is great!

      • I loved A Walk In The Woods. I had just done the West Coast Trail and perhaps could relate. I really enjoyed a Sunburned Country as well. I listened to it on audio book on a long drive and almost had to pull over at points I was laughing so hard.

  3. I haven’t seen the Northern Lights but dreamed of seeing it. I am limited still to seeing it in photos like the ones you’ve taken. I would love to patiently endure everything just to witness it raw. I just need to learn, adapt and survive though the cold temp first. 🙂

  4. Funny stuff Jeff, and obviously written by someone with lots of experience. I’ve always wanted to see the lights, and have been far enough north a number of times, but have experienced the cloudy, low/no activity scenarios. But, I’m not a huge fan of frigid weather which means that if I ever see the Aurora, I will be the luckiest person on earth. ~James

    • I think the key for someone who doesn’t like the cold is to make a fire or find a cabin in the woods and run outside or walk away from the fire at particularly active periods. Of course, in this scenario the very best displays will happen when you are gazing at the camp fire or warming up inside.

  5. Haha! Great post…. I loved #6 and #9 and the long exposure shots of yourself! But I would say the first photo makes it all worth it. I haven’t ever seen the Northern Lights, but have wanted to for the LONGEST time. I’ll keep your post in mind… and try and make a trip with no other plans, except Aurora Boreais viewing 🙂

    • When they do finally come out, it is one of the most spectacular sights on earth. You really have to earn it, which makes it even more special I suppose. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Pingback: Photos from the Awesome Aurora Show on Sept 12, 2014, That Will Make You Jealous | Planet Bell

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