Viewing the Northern Lights at Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters
By John Silliman, Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters Head Naturalist
Photos By: Heidi Pinkerton, Root River Photography
The Northern Lights are an amazing sight to see at Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters. Gunflint Lake has one of the best views of the Northern Lights in the lower 48 states, with a wide panorama of the northern skies over the United States and Ontario, Canada. When we are near solar maximum, we may see the Aurora Borealis multiple times in a week.
Where does the name Aurora Borealis come from?
Aurora is the Greek Goddess of the Dawn. Boreal refers to the north. It is basically the dawn of the north. Similarly, Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights) is the dawn of the south.
What causes the Northern Lights?
Plasma is the hottest state of matter. Within plasma, there are loose electrons and protons caused by the high speed impacts of atoms at that temperature. All the stars and lightning are plasma.
When the sun releases extra plasma in the form of a coronal mass ejection (CME) or a solar wind stream, the plasma travels to Earth and the other planets along something akin to magnetic ropes. Sometimes there are two parallel streams of plasma traveling at different speeds, and you can get a buildup of extra plasma between them known as a Co-rotating Interactive Region (CIR).
When the plasma comes to Earth, it runs into our magnetosphere, which shields us against matter coming in from space. The loose electrons in the plasma are pulled toward the poles, where they run into the oxygen and nitrogen atoms in our upper atmosphere. When they strike, these atoms become excited (gain extra energy), which is released in the form of a photon (literally light). When that photon is released, the electron is destroyed. Thousands of these photons per square centimeter per second are what we see as the Northern Lights.
The colors are caused by the type of atom releasing the photon, as well as the altitude or state of the atom. Red lights are caused by a reaction with oxygen at or above 124 miles (200 km). Green mixed with yellow (most common at Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters) is caused by a reaction with oxygen at about 60 miles. The brighter green colors are caused by the reaction with oxygen at about 40 miles above the surface of the Earth. Since the electrons are destroyed when there is a photon, the Northern Lights do not occur lower than 40 miles above the surface of the Earth.
Blue Auroras (incredibly rare) and red-purple Auroras with rippled edges are caused by reactions with ionic and neutral nitrogen. It is a rare treat when we see those colors.
The reaction is similar to what happens in a neon light. Electrocity (electrons) are pushed through neon atoms, causing the photons which create the neon lights.
Tips for Viewing the Northern Lights
- The best times of the year to see the Aurora Borealis would be at the Vernal (spring) and Autumnal (fall) Equinoxes. The Earth’s tilt is such that there are frequent cracks in the magnetosphere, which means less plasma is required to cause the Northern Lights. The Winter Solstice is the next best time.
- Pay attention to the 9 – 12 year solar cycle. There will be more Aurora Borealis at the maximum (peak), and fewer Northern Lights at Solar Minimum (between cycles). We are at the point in the cycle where the Aurora Borealis will continue to get better for the next 3 – 4 years.
- Pay attention to the Kp. Index. It is on a scale of 1 – 9, with likely Aurora Borealis visible at Gunflint Lake when the Kp index is at or above 4. See https://www.spaceweather.com/ for more information and updates as well as a lot of other great information and links.
- Find a dark area along the shore of Gunflint Lake for viewing. Gunflint Lake is a great place to see the Aurora Borealis due to the wide north view. People from all over the area come to Gunflint Lake to photograph the event.
- Northern Lights can be seen any time after dark when the sky is clear. If they are bright, you may see them on our webcam (https://gunflint.com/webcam-current-conditions-gunflint-lodge/). Then you can go outside to watch them live.
- The Aurora Borealis displays ebb and flow based on the amount of plasma coming to our planet at that second. Displays may be really bright one moment, gone fifteen minutes later, and bright again twenty minutes after that. It pays to check multiple times.
Resources for Further Learning
- Come to one of our Northern Lights Presentations at Gunflint Lodge. Naturalist activities are open to all overnight guests of Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters.
- An excellent website for information about the Northern Lights is at https://www.spaceweather.com/. which is updated several times each day. You will find up to date data, as well as explanation links for non-scientists. There are also a number of amazing web links to other great sources. This is the site I check every day.
- Supermassive Podcast (not to be confused with the Super Massive Podcast). Two enthusiastic members of the Royal Astronomical Society present up to date information of astronomical happenings. One of the hosts also has a YouTube channel called Dr. Becky, which is entertaining and educational.
- Star Talk Podcast and YouTube channel.. Great science for non-scientists. This one is based in the United States.