If you're visiting Valdez during certain times of the year, you might just hear the locals telling you to "look up!" to see the aurora draped over the local mountain skyline.
"Can You See the Northern Lights in Valdez?"
It's possible to spot the Northern Lights from Valdez during most of the year, from late summer or early fall through spring, though the darker winter months are best. However, Valdez's coastal location and weather (Valdez is the snowiest town in the United States) make spotting the aurora here less reliable than in other parts of Alaska farther North.
The best areas for spotting the aurora around Valdez are in the areas further out of town, like Robe Lake or in Thompson Pass.
For local updates on the aurora in Valdez, check out Aurora Cam, which operates out of Valdez. Aurora Cam is the first and only real-time Aurora detection and notification system.
Thompson Pass is a great location to look for the Northern Lights Photo by Mathew Osburn
Aurora Heather Bay in late August Photo from Pangaea Adventures.
Aurora seen over Heather Bay in late August. Photo from Pangaea Adventures.
Aurora Science & Viewing Tips
Written by Alan Sorum
Alaska being part of the circumpolar north experiences displays of northern lights or Aurora Borealis frequently in the winter months. These natural light shows can stretch from horizon to horizon and display remarkable variations in their color and intensity. Aurora viewing is popular with Alaska residents and visitors alike. Being able to witness the northern lights depends on a combination of favorable solar activity and clear skies.
The Science of Space Weather
Auroras are created at extreme latitudes as highly charged particles erupting from solar disturbances stream into the upper atmosphere of the earth. The color of the aurora depends on the altitude of the aurora and atmospheric density found at that level. Auroral altitudes can vary from 80 to 600 kilometers above the earth’s surface. Atmospheric gasses like oxygen and nitrogen display unique colors when charged particles strike them with enough force to split their molecules. Oxygen produces red and green lights, while nitrogen creates blue to red to purple colors.
The best time to view auroras is at around local midnight. Viewing is impacted by factors like cloud cover, moonlight and local pollution. Pollution in this instance can include things like wood stoves and stray light from sources like unshielded streetlights. Auroras ebb and flow through the evening and serious viewers will be outdoors several hours before and after local midnight.
Predicting the Aurora
The flow of charged particles composed of electrons and photons generated by solar eruptions is known as the solar wind. This solar wind is the engine that generates the northern lights and there are ways that scientists can predict the impact of these particles in the atmosphere. Energy generated by a solar storm takes two to three days to reach the earth. The path of these particles is affected by outside forces and the condition of the earth’s magnetosphere. Another factor is the rotation of the sun. Since it takes 27 days for the sun to rotate, an active region of the sun that generates auroras today could create similar effects in another 27 days.
The UAF Geophysical Institute provides long, medium and short term aurora forecasts. The long term forecast is based in part on what happened with the sun 27 days ago. The main forecast product is for 3 to 7 days out and based on direct solar observations. One hour, short term forecasts are derived from satellite data as solar energy nears the earth. Auroral activity is predicted by the relative level of the planetary magnetic index (Kp) and is broken into nine levels of activity.
Thank you to Alan Sorum of Alpine Garden And Hearth.