Alaska northern lights: A surprising new tool can measure aurora borealis activity


BUTTE, Alaska (NewsNation Now) — The beauty and wonder of the northern lights have mesmerized many for centuries. 

This natural light show put on by charged particles from the sun is a regular wonder this time of year in the interior of Alaska.

“Even at its lowest point, it’s sixty miles up above the earth, but once you know that, it’s just the scale, and the motion and the colors, it’s all of that,” said Don Hampton with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It’s just so different than anything we ever experience before.”

Hampton is among the scientists tracking auroras UAF. The team there recently discovered that data from earthquake sensors put in by seismologists also produced useful readings on magnetic fluctuations. 

“It’s kind of annoying to the seismologists but it’s kind of interesting to the space physicists because here’s this very dense array of sensors that were picking up something that we’re quite interested in,” Hampton said.

More than 200 seismometers are in Alaska, so that data is now folded in with readings from magnetometers and a number of all-sky cameras.

The constant watch is key since a major magnetic storm has and can knock out infrastructure, but the measurements hardly matter to light chasers throughout the world.

“The northern lights are just incredible. They’re like nothing that you’d see anywhere else,” said tourism veteran Julie Staupe.

Staupe, the CEO of Visit Anchorage, says people who fulfill this entry on their bucket lists are never disappointed.

“I saw them for the first time when I was 10 years old. I still remember that night. It just really sticks with you. It’s a unique experience and they’re magical,” she said.

Chasing the northern lights is hit and miss, but according to scientists, the odds will soon improve based on the solar wind forecast.

“We should be picking up in the next two or three years, the solar wind will get more active again. So that means, for the same time you’re at a site where you might be able to see the aurora, you’re more likely to see them because it’s going to be more active,” Hampton said.

While many have yet to see an aurora for themselves, those who see them often say it never gets old.

“It doesn’t lose its magic by knowing more about it. In fact, it makes it more intriguing to figure out what’s going on,” Hapton said.

A special thanks to Arctic Light Images for providing imagery and video for this story.

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