The recipe for a good northern lights show is pretty simple. All you need to do is find a clear night, get away from the city lights, live near the magnetic north pole, and time it such that a giant explosion on the sun sprays the atmosphere with highly energized particles. You can achieve all of those requirements in Nome.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience a few spectacular northern lights shows in Nome. The bulk of shows are a dull glow over the mountains—a cool sight to be sure—but when solar activity ramps up, you’re in for something really special. It’s a rare occurrence to see the lights flicker and dance across the sky, but I’ve seen it and I’ll never forget it. Watching streams of green light shoot overhead while lying on the ground at 25 below leaves an impression. A constantly shifting 360 degree view of bright green and purple arches will light up the snow and get your adrenaline pumping. If you didn’t already know that you’re in a unique place, you know it now.
I catch as many shows as I can, but you never really know what you’re going to get. I keep my eye on the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute forecast and receive emails when big solar events happen. As with any weather forecast, space weather forecasts are not bulletproof. I’ve seen plenty of no-shows when there was a decent show in the forecast. But you risk missing the “big one” if you stay inside.
Almost without exception, all of the shows I’ve seen have been in frigid weather. Clear skies are associated with cooler temperatures and the limited cloud cover allows the earth to lose heat quickly. And with 21 hours of daylight in the warm summer months, you’re not going to see any auroral activity.
I’ll be watching while the watching’s good: the sun is entering a couple year period known as the solar maximum. This is a time when sunspot activity peaks and the sun sends out more energy than normal. I get chills just thinking about it. I’ll be keeping my eyes on the sky and hoping I don’t forget my warm mittens.