Missed the Auroras in May? Here’s How to See Them Next Time

After an evening of trick-or-treating in Maplewood, Minnesota, on October 31, 2003, 4-year-old Vincent Ledvina and his family were heading home for the night. Suddenly, he noticed the sky was lit up in ethereal colors that were like nothing he had ever seen before. To Ledvina, as a child, it looked like flames rippling across the sky. When he got to his house, he watched the lights from a west-facing window.

“I was kind of fascinated but also just kind of mystified. I had no idea what was going on,” he says. He stared outside, taking in the glow, until his parents made him go to bed. “I was just totally transfixed by it.”

The next day, Ledvina learned he’d seen a rare geomagnetic storm, now known as the Great Halloween Solar Storm of 2003, that brought the northern lights much farther south than usual. That experience launched an interest in the night sky, which morphed into an obsession with the northern lights.

Now, Ledvina studies space physics in a doctoral program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He’s hooked on chasing auroras, going out to look on every clear night that he can.

“The addiction is real,” says Tom Kerss, an astronomer and professional aurora chaser based in the United Kingdom and United States. He’s seen auroras more than 300 times—he’s gazed upon their light during the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, taught travelers on Norway’s Hurtigruten cruise lines as the company’s chief aurora scientist and even accidentally plunged his foot through the ice on a frozen stream while staring upward in Iceland.

“There aren’t many of us in the world who call ourselves ‘professional aurora chasers,’ but what we would do is we would try to share that experience with other people,” Kerss says.

On May 10 and 11, people around the globe got the unusual experience of seeing the northern lights—many for the first time—from their own hometowns. Intense solar activity set off a geomagnetic storm in Earth’s atmosphere that hit level G5—the strongest one since the night in 2003 that captivated Ledvina as a child.

This time, as auroras became visible from a mind-boggling portion of the planet, seasoned aurora chasers went outside accompanied by first-time viewers. And for many, being able to share the expertise they’ve gained from each northern lights sighting was rewarding.

“It was surreal, and it was great to experience it with people who haven’t seen the aurora before,” says Prisco Blanco, a Pasco, Washington, resident who chases auroras when they appear over the state. “To view how friends and family were able to see and experience it for the first time when they haven’t, for me that was the people aspect of it. It felt worth it.”

Leading up to May 10, Blanco was just coming off a two-week period of intense work, “nonstop” between his job at Columbia Basin College and hosting shows in Spanish at a local planetarium. He was looking forward to a free weekend to sleep in. But then he heard the sun had launched a vast amount of material toward Earth. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to bed at all,’” he says. “I did not sleep. … I’m still recovering.”

Kerss managed to see a faint glow from Florida, like a colorless veil that was giving off its own light. Witnessing the northern lights there was “unusual,” he says. “I just didn’t think it would ever be possible in my lifetime.”

Ledvina, for his part, had unwittingly planned a vacation during the time of the solar storm. Nevertheless, he spotted the northern lights—from Leh in Indian-administered territory.

a starry sky appears bright over dry, vegetation-less hills, with a faint glow of red over the top of the peaks

Near his hotel in Leh, Vincent Ledvina saw the northern lights on May 10 as a “faint red glow” through his camera, and the storm intensified after this photo was taken.

Vincent Ledvina

“Every night’s different—that’s why I do it. The aurora’s never the same,” Ledvina says. “Every night you’re honing your skills, and your intuition gets a little bit sharper after every single aurora.”

For people who missed seeing May’s event—and for those hoping to catch another appearance of the ethereal skyward glow—we put some of the biggest northern lights questions to aurora chasers and scientists. Here’s everything you need to know about the phenomenon and how best to see it in the coming years.

What are auroras?

The dazzling lights in Earth’s atmosphere that we know as auroras are intricately tied to activity on the sun. Our nearest star often develops dark regions called sunspots, in which its magnetic field gets tangled up, making them cooler than the surrounding areas. But these spots are active, with the potential to erupt.

Sunspots can fling material outward in different ways: solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). A solar flare is a burst of radiation, while a CME expels plasma and magnetic fields. Both are impressive, but when it comes to seeing auroras, it’s the CMEs that count.

“If you’re thinking of a sunspot as a gun … the solar flare is basically a muzzle flash, and the coronal mass ejection is the bullet,” Blanco says. “The flash is pretty, it’s pretty cool to look at, but … we won’t get aurora, because it needs that material to make its way into our magnetosphere.”

When the ejected, charged particles reach Earth’s vicinity, our planet’s magnetic field siphons them toward the poles. Once there, the rapidly moving solar particles slam into atoms of gas in our atmosphere—mostly nitrogen and oxygen—giving them energy. As these atoms release the excess energy, they glow brightly in vivid color, creating what we know as the northern and southern lights.

An aurora’s hue depends on the altitude and type of gas being energized. Green auroras—caused by oxygen at lower altitudes of about 60 to 190 miles—are the most common and easiest to see. At higher altitudes, roughly 190 to 250 miles above ground, oxygen glows scarlet. Nitrogen can produce red or blue hues, and near the bottom of auroras, it might cause a pink band at a height of around 60 miles. Auroras can also appear purple.

In some rare cases, the northern lights can even produce sound—making crackling or snapping noises. Experiencing this phenomenon is “perhaps the white whale of all aurora chasers,” Kerss says. “To hear the aurora is not something I’ve ever managed to do.”

green and purple streaks emanate from a point in the left center of the image, with silhouettes of evergreen trees below

Auroras light the sky in green, blue and purple over the Olympic Peninsula in Washington on May 10.

Kashmir Wilkinson via Aurorasaurus

Why are we seeing more auroras this year?

Like the Earth, the sun has magnetic north and south poles—but unlike Earth, those poles flip positions every 11 years. This shift drives an 11-year solar cycle in which the star experiences a period of low magnetic activity and a period of high magnetic activity, which culminate, respectively, in a “solar minimum” and a “solar maximum.”

Right now, we are approaching a solar maximum, which means the sun has a nearly peak number of sunspots and heightened levels of solar flares, CMEs, solar wind and other releases of particles.

The last solar maximum occurred in 2014—but that one was “kind of wimpy,” says Elizabeth MacDonald, a heliophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. It didn’t produce any storm that could compare to the one on May 10 or the Halloween storm of 2003, which was during the prior solar maximum.

Experts predict the upcoming solar maximum will occur in 2025—though some say it could arrive early, as soon as later this year. But the maximum isn’t necessarily one year; Ledvina thinks of it as a “high season” that could bring multiple years with more sunspots and solar activity.

green and red light forms bands, with red on top, over a landscape with a telephone pole

In the Hanford, Washington, area, the northern lights appeared green and red on May 10.

Prisco Blanco

When is the best time to watch auroras?

No matter where you are on the globe, the best time to spot auroras is going to be in the darkest hours—often, that’s just after midnight local time.

“Of course, the brightest part of the aurora may occur during the daytime where you are; it may occur later in the morning. But if you go out around that midnight hour, and if you’re out particularly between around 10 p.m. through to around 2 a.m., that’s going to be the best time to view,” Kerss says.

The time of year is also important—the typical aurora-chasing season is between September and March in the Arctic. Attending on either end of this window, right around the autumn and spring equinoxes, might be the ideal period. At this time, the sun is more active, and the alignment of Earth is most favorable to aurora viewing.

Another perk of watching around the equinoxes: If you’re traveling to the Arctic, you’ll likely have slightly milder weather and avoid the full chill of midwinter.

How can you make the most of a trip to see auroras?

The best aurora viewing is at high latitudes in the Arctic Circle (or, conversely, at very southern latitudes). Dress warmly, and be prepared to stay outside for a long time around midnight.

a view up at the sky with no horizon, red light emanating from a central point

The southern lights also dazzled skywatchers on the other side of the globe in early May. Here, they glow red over Nugget Point in New Zealand.

Allison Jaynes via Aurorasaurus

Crucially, book a long enough trip to give you several chances to see the auroras, in case cloudy weather blocks your view on some nights. “You have to go for at least three nights, ideally a week,” Ledvina says.

“You’ll be kicking yourself if you come home from a beautiful location having missed it, and then it kicks off the following night, and you read about it on the news,” adds Kerss.

To improve your visibility, you could align your trip with a new moon, when skies will be darker. And darkness is key—if you’re in the Arctic during the summer, daylight persists around the clock, making it impossible to see the northern lights.

If you can, experts recommend booking a tour with a guide. They’ll know the local area and they’ll know how to navigate the potentially icy or snowy roads. You can pick their brain for more aurora knowledge. And the guide won’t be fighting jet lag, so they’ll be better equipped to stay up late.

“At least for one night, I think it’s worth it,” Ledvina says. “It’s always good to hire a guide. It’s safer.”

What are some tips for viewing auroras in your local area?

Just as for any skywatching event, you’ll want to get as far away from light pollution as possible, and your view of auroras will be clearer on moonless nights.

Even during a large geomagnetic storm that brings the northern lights to the south, aurora chasers say you should manage your expectations. “It’s very different than what you see in pictures,” Blanco says. “Your camera can see a lot of things that the eye can’t see.”

The mid-latitude northern lights might be dimmer than expected, and they can be obscured by the car headlights of other aurora-spotting hopefuls. This means your naked-eye view might not match up to what you see on social media. But on the bright side, your phone camera is a great tool for finding the glow.

“You can basically use your phone to get a better sense of if the aurora is really there,” MacDonald says. “It’s kind of like a mini-night-vision tool that you have, because the cameras are much better than our eyes at picking up color.”

As a result, your phone camera can help you discern whether you’re truly seeing the northern lights or just noticing nearby light pollution. If it really is an aurora, that could be a cue to move to a darker spot for viewing.

Once you know an aurora is coming, plan ahead. CMEs take a couple of days to reach Earth after they’ve launched, so you will have some time to pick a few nearby dark-sky sites and follow local weather conditions to determine the best spot to view.

a pink and purple sky with streaks of pink coming down from above, out of frame, over the horizon with about a dozen trees in silhouette

The sky above evergreen trees is illuminated in a pink glow on May 10 in Sydney, Manitoba, Canada.

Justin Anderson via Aurorasaurus

How can you keep up with when auroras will happen?

Sites like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center and Space Weather Live—which also has an app—give forecasts for when CMEs from the sun might hit Earth and where the auroras may appear. Experts track these predictions and will start spreading the news on social media, so following aurora chasers and scientists could also bring you early alerts.

Aurora chasers monitor live sky cams to get a sense of the aurora activity. “I have the all-sky camera feed on one screen and my homework on the other, and I’m constantly checking,” Ledvina says.

Keeping tabs on the local weather is also key. Blanco suggests looking at webcams that show real-time weather conditions rather than relying on apps to estimate the cloud cover, for example.

Another way to keep up with sightings is through Aurorasaurus, a citizen science platform founded by MacDonald that tracks auroras through user-submitted photos and reports.

People who sign up for an Aurorasaurus account can opt into alerts of aurora activity. “There’s actually two different kinds of alerts. One of them is just if you are in the region where the aurora model, driven by space data, thinks that you should be able to see the aurora to the north,” MacDonald says. The other alert is more dynamic. “If citizen scientists are reporting aurora there, and you have signed up for an alert there, it’ll adapt” and send a notification.

Scientists still have a lot to learn about auroras, MacDonald says. But aurora chasers and the public can crowdsource valuable observations to contribute to researchers’ understanding. And this solar maximum offers the best opportunity to photograph the auroras yet.

“Most cellphones can take extraordinary pictures of aurora now, which they couldn’t 11 years ago,” MacDonald says. “And back in 2003, most people didn’t have digital cameras. So this latest storm is really the biggest storm since then and the first that has been imaged with digital cameras.”

green and purple, almost like tie-dye, emanate out from a single point in this sky-only view

The northern lights illuminate the sky above Hanford, Washington, on May 10.

Prisco Blanco

Will we see more auroras like earlier in May?

The geomagnetic storm on May 10 came from a series of at least seven CMEs launched by a blob of sunspots the size of 17 Earths.

“Our first potential chance for [a repeat event] would be when the really complex sunspot that drove this storm rotates back around on the face of the sun,” which is a 27-day process, MacDonald says. That makes this week the next opportunity for such widespread sightings of auroras.

But this mass of sunspots appears to be decaying already, says Ledvina, lowering the chance of an equally powerful storm in early June.

As the year goes on, however, the sun will continue building to its maximum level of activity, raising the odds that it will hurl more ejections of charged particles our way. We can count on seeing some spectacular auroras, but another show that rivals the one last month would be a real stroke of luck.

“As much as I would love a repeat of what happened on May 10, those are exceedingly rare events,” Blanco says. “A lot had to go right for that to happen.”

For another massive geomagnetic storm to occur, the sun would not only have to launch an incredibly powerful CME (or multiple in a row), but its material would have to be pointed at Earth. And “the Earth is a small target,” Kerss notes.

Still, the recent, widespread display of auroras is raising hopes of particularly strong solar activity in the coming months and years. Historically, some of the biggest geomagnetic storms—like the one on Halloween in 2003—have occurred just after the maximum passed.

“I think that’s where a lot of the hype is coming from,” Blanco says. “If we got a big one this early on, what happens once we get to late 2025, 2026?”

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