Aurora Dreaming

It wasn’t enough that my friend Kathleen and I have been dreaming about our early-March bucket-list trip to Alaska. Lollipop (left), one of her feline housemates, recently got into the act.

I have wanted to experience aurora borealis (i.e., the northern lights) for at least 50 years. I never knew it was on my bucket list—or that I even had such a thing—until Kathleen suggested a trip to Norway to celebrate our birthdays. Although she had experienced the phenomenon in Iceland, she wanted to do it again, this time in a dogsled. But international covid precautions sent us in a different—and domestic—direction. Fairbanks, Alaska.

Located 196 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is frequently cited as the best place to see the northern lights in the U.S., and, according to some, in the world.

That’s because it sits a touch above the 65th parallel of north latitude. To get a sense of what that means, picture Earth. The Equator is at 0 degrees latitude; True North—and South—Poles are at 90 degrees north and south, respectively, of the Equator, making the North Pole, by definition, the northernmost point on the Earth.

The Arctic Circle (66°33′48.9″ north latitude) is the northernmost point at which the noon sun is visible on the winter solstice. To its north is the Arctic; to its south, the Northern Temperate Zone. Ironically, the city of North Pole, Alaska, lies 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle and 1,744.54 miles south of the True North Pole.

By comparison, Utqiaġvik (Barrow), is 504 miles north of Fairbanks, and 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle. At a latitude of 71 degrees north, it is the northernmost municipality in the U.S. (Sidenote: Bob and I experienced the Midnight Sun there in 2001 while staying at the Top of the World Hotel, with a beachfront view of the Arctic Ocean. Mid-summer temperatures hovered in the 30s.)

In Fairbanks, March is not only a transition month, but it is also high season. Temperatures moderate as skies brighten. Daily highs range from –2°F to 23°F, though they can plunge to –17°F and surge to 38°F. Compared to typical readings of –20°F to –40°F in December and January, March sounds downright balmy.

And bright. Sunrise on March 1 is 7:59 a.m., and sunset is 6:08 p.m., Alaska Standard Time (AST). During the month, total hours of sunlight range from 10 hours, 9 minutes, to 13 hours, 38 minutes. On the vernal equinox, Fairbanks receives 12 hours and 11 minutes of sunshine. On the summer solstice, it gets 21 hours, 50 minutes of daylight. Then it begins to darken again.

With clear to partly cloudy skies prevailing in early March and less than a 10% chance of precipitation, Fairbanks bills itself as an ideal canvas for the aurora borealis. That’s because most northern lights occur in a band known as the auroral oval, a swath that sweeps beneath the geomagnetic pole. The northern lights around the North Pole are the borealis; in the southern hemisphere, they are the australis.

Galileo, the 17th-century Italian scientist called the father of observational astronomy, named the phenomenon after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, who raced her multi-colored chariot across the sky to usher in the dawn.

The earliest record of the northern lights, however, goes back much further. According to NASA scientists, a 30,000-year-old cave painting in France depicts unknown lights in the night sky. Assyrian cuneiform records, dating from 655 BC to 679 BC, and Babylonian texts, made by astronomers of King Nebuchadnezzar II in 567 BC describe unusual red glows in the night sky. The oldest official documentation is dated 2,600 BC in China. Fu-Pao, the mother of Shuan-Yuan, the Yellow Emperor, is said to have observed “strong lightning” that lit up the night sky.

Pre-historic lore is as colorful as the lights themselves. The Vikings believed that they reflected the Valkyries’ armor leading Odin’s warriors to Valhalla. To the Sámis, they were the souls of the dead, and to the Finnish, sparks flying from the tail of a racing firefox. Some Native Americans saw them as giant flames under huge cooking pots. Others as demons chasing lost souls, or as omens of pestilence and war.

In Alaska, some Inuit communities feared the lights as evil while others saw them as playful, or as the animals they had hunted. I like the legend that portrays them as torches borne by spirits to lead the souls of the dead across a narrow pathway to a better land, free of disease, pain, and hunger.

Although solar activity happens all the time, it shows up only against dark skies. It is the result of electrons and protons from the Sun slamming into the Earth’s atmosphere at about 45 million miles per hour. Because the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker at the poles, these particles invade Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles, causing streams, arcs, rippling curtains, or shooting rays. The resulting colors range from red to violet, but most often appear as pale green and purple. The most common auroral color is a pale yellowish-green (like the cover of the book that Lolly is reading), which is produced by oxygen molecules. Nitrogen produces a blue or purplish-red aurora.

Astronomically, we have a good chance of seeing the lights. Skywatchers recommend three to four days in the arctic, synced with the dark skies that straddle a new moon. New moon is March 2. Since geomagnetic activity increases during the equinoxes, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis angles into the solar wind, early- to mid-March is highly recommended. And, according to the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, the forecasted aurora oval for March 5–10 is high.

On this map of the forecasted aurora oval, degrees of latitude are noted on the left and right.
Fairbanks is about 65° north latitude.
The Arctic Circle is about 66°.
©2020 Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks

While in the interior of Alaska, we plan to go dog-mushing in North Pole—that’s on Kathleen’s bucket list—and swimming in the geothermally heated waters of Chena Hot Springs—that’s on both of ours. There are museums to explore, restaurants to sample, and retail stores to shop. We may take a guided tour to the Arctic Circle, hike to an ice cave in Castner Glacier, or sit around a toasty fire at the hotel. Who knows, maybe we’ll even try our hands at curling or ice fishing.

But the focal point is experiencing the auroras.

Experts say that the best way to see them is by dogsled, guided tour, or asking the front desk to wake you up if they appear. We plan to do all three. With temperatures that range from frigid to frozen, and adventures that range from fire to ice, we’re packing our bags with layers of clothes and arming ourselves with cameras, books, and bucket lists.

Fairbanks, here we come!

Published by Patti M. Walsh

A storyteller since her first fib, Patti M. Walsh is an award-winning author who writes short stories, novels, and memoirs. Her first novel, GHOST GIRL, is a middle-grade coming-of-age ghost story based on Celtic mythology. In addition to extensive experience teaching and counseling, Patti is a Hermes award-winning business and technical writer. Visit

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