The Northern Lights over Lake Superior

The Aurora Borealis (AKA the Northern Lights) are on almost everyone’s bucket list, and for good reason. Watching colored beams of light dance in a sea of stars is truly something to behold. What most people don’t know is: you can see them in Michigan, even from the Lower Peninsula. Other online guides go over the very basics of viewing the Aurora. I’m making a better guide. This multi-part guide covers all aspects, from location, to predictions, to photographing them.

Table of contents:

  1. Overview
  2. Cloud Cover
  3. Moon Phase
  4. Solar Wind
  5. Viewing Locations

 

The Aurora is triggered by solar wind. The surface of the sun is obviously a hostile place. From time to time, holes in the Sun’s Corona and solar flares can hurl charged particles towards earth in the form of Solar wind.

It takes these particles 2-3 days to reach Earth, where they’ll cause a reaction in the upper atmosphere, and ultimately cause a visible aurora with enough power.

Beware of Clouds!

Since the aurora occurs in the upper atmosphere, clouds can block your view. Before you even consider leaving for a night of Aurora hunting, check the cloud forecast!

I bet this would a be a sweet display of the northern lights, if it weren’t for the clouds!

Resources to check for Cloud Cover:

ClearOutside – A Great tool for determining cloud cover at a specific location and time. They also have an app.

Windy – Another great resource for checking cloud cover at a specific time.

Pay attention to the moon phase

The Moon can play a large factor in viewing the Aurora. The northern lights can be very faint in the sky, and the moon is, well, very bright. Ideally, the northern lights will time itself to be during a new moon phase, where the moon isn’t visible at all. Otherwise, you can still have good luck if the moon is less than a crescent, sets early in the night, or rises way later in the night.

To give a comparison about how much the moon can impact viewing conditions, the following 2 photos were taken from the same general area: one during a full moon, and the other during a new moon:

Resources for checking the moon phase:

Moongiant – Shows the current moon phase, and can show the moon phase for months ahead of time.

Solar Wind Data

Having a basic understanding of the data behind solar wind will be your biggest advantage to a successful search of the northern lights. You can’t rely on the weatherman to tell you when the northern lights could appear.

The Northern Lights as seen from Whitehall, Michigan.

The U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) studies and measures solar wind. The data from NOAA’s satellites is used for pretty much all Aurora prediction services and apps.

Speaking of which, here’s where you can view solar wind data:

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center – As mentioned above, NOAA is the one capturing all this data, so why not get it from the horse’s mouth? Any notable incoming space weather should be mentioned on the home page.

Spaceweatherlive – This is my go-to place for at-a-glance solar weather conditions. They also have a free app, which can provide notifications when the northern lights may appear.

Glossary of common terms:

I’ll go over the common readings below, but this list is far from exhaustive.

  • Geomagnetic Storm Levels: These are rated 1-5. NOAA will announce these on their website. A G1 storm is minor, G2 is Moderate, G3 is Strong, G4 is severe, and G5 is Extreme. These geomagnetic storms are possible when enough solar wind reaches earth’s upper atmosphere. To give a rough sense of scale, A G2 storm will catch my attention, and a G3 storm will get me outside looking every time. G4 and 5 are uncommon, and rare. If you hear of a G4 or 5 storm, we’re in for quite the aurora display, it may even be visible in places like Indiana or Ohio.
  • KP Levels: These are 3 hour averages of solar wind influence from readings on the ground around the world. These levels will end up corresponding with geomagnetic storms once KP5 is reached. In general, KP5 will equal a G1 storm, and KP9 will equal a G5 storm. KP6 and higher is a good sign for seeing the aurora from Michigan.
  • Solar Wind: Interplanetary Magnetic Field (Bz): I’ll keep this simple. Negative numbers are good here, the more negative the better. Prolonged periods of -5 are good, -10 and lower are even better. This is a good indication of short-term aurora activity. Depending on Solar wind speed (see below), NOAA’s DSCOVR and ACE satellites can read this information about 45 minutes to an hour before the solar wind reaches the earth’s atmosphere.
  • Solar Wind: Speed: Faster is better.
  • Solar Wind: Density: Increased density is better
  • Hemispheric Power: Measured in Gigawatts (GW). The long description is here. Simply put, more is better. The Hemispheric power will rise with more solar wind hitting our upper atmosphere with more energy. Things like a negative BZ, increased solar wind density and solar wind speed will increase the hemispheric power. During periods of no aurora, this is commonly below 15 GW. I’ll start paying attention once we’re at around 40GW. Anything past 60 should make for a good northern lights show. Once you get past 100, and we’re in for a great solar storm, and news stations will be mentioning it at this point.

The Northern Lights at Sleepy Hollow State Park, near Laingsburg.

Viewing Locations

I’ll give a few specific locations further below, but you can see the northern lights across much of Northern Michigan if you follow these two rules:

  • Further north is better. It should go without saying that the further north you go, the better your odds of seeing the northern lights are.
  • Get away from city lights, especially if they’re north of you. The artificial light given off by streetlights, porch lights, buildings, flood lights, and headlights will wash out the sky. You will want the northern horizon to have as little artificial light as possible.
The Northern Lights being partially obscured by light pollution at Higgins Lake. The yellow glow along the horizon are man-made lights from a city, and the purple lights above them are the Aurora.

Resources to view Light Pollution data:

Light Pollution Map

The Upper Peninsula

This should go without saying, but the U.P. is the best place in Michigan to see the northern lights. Not only because of its higher latitude, but very few towns means no artificial light, so the skies are pristine and dark once you get outside of any of the towns up there. Looking north over Lake superior, you’ll have a fantastic view of the northern horizon, and the Aurora.

The log slide overlook, gives a high vantage point over Lake Superior near Grand Marais:

Sullivan’s landing is a nice, secluded area, about 20 minutes West of grand Marais, MI:

Miner’s Beach and Miner’s castle offer great viewing locations for the Northern Lights near Munising:

To see the northern Lights near Marquette, I’d recommend going to Little Presque Isle:

Brockway Mountain is one of the best viewing areas for the Northern Lights in the Keweenaw Peninsula:

The Lower Peninsula

The headlands International Dark sky park, near Mackinaw:

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers dark skies, and great opportunities to see the Northern Lights:

In the thumb, Pointe Aux Barques is a reasonably dark srea to see the Aurora:

This concludes my guide to viewing the Northern Lights in Michigan. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out of me on Facebook.