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When’s the best time to see the aurora borealis?

Dear Cecil:

Can you tell me the best time of the year to see the Aurora Borealis? Also, can I see it from, say, northern Wisconsin, or do I have to go to northwest Canada or Alaska?

Peter Tom, Chicago

Cecil replies:

The auroras are the result of collisions between atoms in the thin upper atmosphere and fast-moving protons and electrons that come from–or are energized by–the sun. They are generally not visible at latitudes below 60 degrees (about the latitude of Juneau, Alaska), although intense solar flare activity can and does make them visible at lower latitudes on occasion. There’s no way to predict these solar flare-ups, and they follow no seasonal routine; however, when they are intensive enough to cause auroral activity around your area, your friendly TV weatherman will usually say so.

Your chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis increases as you move north, but until you get up into Alaska and Greenland you get no guarantees. Wherever you are, you have a much better chance of seeing something if you’re way out in the wilderness somewhere where it’s very dark.

You can expect more auroral activity as the sun reaches the peak of its 11-year sunspot cycle. Unfortunately, that won’t happen again until after the millennium. Till then it looks like you’ll have to head to Canada.

Cecil Adams

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