6th of Nov. 07

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Spotting Auroras... How I do it?

Frequently Asked Questions

High vs. High Middle Lat. comparison

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Spotting Auroras

Maybe under construction...

( Note: My intension is not to tell you why things happen like they do, but I am only going to tell how and what tools I use in Aurora spotting!!!)

Some basics:

  • Geomagnetic latitude: Geomagnetic latitude tells you how strong the geomagnetic/ aurora storm has to be that you can see it from your location. Geomagnetic latitude is not the same as geographic latitude!!! Example my geomagnetic latitude is only 57 while my geographic latitude is as high as 61! So, example North Dakota has allmost same geomagnetic latitude as I do, even that it seems to be almost near the equator when compared to my home place...;-)

    Find out your own geomagnetic latitude from: http://sec.noaa.gov/Aurora/index.html

  • Don't be a "web slave"! Because if you do, you will find yourself watching only the monitor while show itself is outside! When you "know" that something could happen, make sure that you be there when the action starts! Because more often than not, the show picks up very quickly and also fades out as quickly as it started! Most of the auroras what I have been watching during the years have been in "bright mode" only about 2 to max 10 minutes at ones....Of course there is often another chance during the night, but according to my own experiences that so called second peak doesn't usually start quickly after the first one, but you have to wait it for 2 or 3 hours.

  • Be patient! Well, after auroras existence this is maybe the most important thing is aurora spotting! More often than not when I am outdoors and waiting for aurora to begin, I am freezing, completely bored, hungry, running out of cigarettes and feel myself an completely idiot (well, maybe I am)...why I am here-there is nothing happening. Then occationally I remember why I do this, if the show starts, it's allways worth of it all! There just isn't any amount of money or technology in the world, which could simulate the experience of seeing this unearthly display off celestial lights! Well, I am out of money, so the money won't help me anyway...
    Seeing an full blown auroral show is just so indescribable experience that there isn't any words for it. When you find yourself saing that there can't be anything like this and at same time you feel like your jaw is going to get loose from pure astonishment... you have maybe seen something like I see frequently during northern light displays!!! It's just something which makes a life long memories night after night-I think it's a pretty big thing for small human. Infact the only thing which I find not good in these displays is that I know that a tons of people are up, but allmost everyone of them is watching TV, while the celestial show of a life time is going on outdoors...

  • Experience: Ok, this is maybe the second most important (human) factor in aurora watching. If you are first patient and then successful in seeing auroras, the direct consequense is that you will gain experience. After while you wll start to recognise what the aurora is maybe doing, in what phase it is and so on. And the most important thing - You will learn what an weak aurora looks like!!! Because, even that we are hoping to see an bright "eruption phase" aurora, the aurora isn't all the time bright - But, at least in my latitude, it's fairly weak maybe even 90% of the time. So the experience will help you to see and determine if there is a weak aurora, whick could get brighter in the future! I have seen that one of the main reasons why so many people don't see any auroras is that when they don't what is going on and what the weak aurora looks like, they also can't wait long enough to see the aurora getting brighter... So, When know what you are looking for and what it looks like, it's lot more easier to wait and see.

  • Light polution and light conditions: Maybe I am not an right person to talk about this, since I live and spot auroras near the mediun size Finnish town (very very tiny town in global scale) and not near the multi million people metropol... Still, even here maybe the most often heard reason for not seeing an aurora is the light polution or too bright twilight!!! Ok, this is NOT the way to go! If you go out to look for the light polution, of course you don't see the aurora... But if you go out to look for the aurora despite of light polution, you might see something... I have watched aurora against a bright orange/yellow twilight and from the center of my ex-home town, while in the traffic lights - so if someone (near my home) comes to me and tells "stories" about light polution and twilight - I don't buy it!!! Of course the situation must be completely different in many other parts of the world...

  • Weather: Don't let overcast weather get you down! Although often clouds do ruin everything, but at the times...you can also get lucky breaks! During a 1999 Leonids meteor shower the sky suddenly cleared like a miracle just before the peak and went overcast again immediatly when the peak was over and I was soo happy. :-) Another example, during major auroral storm in 10/11 April 2001 the forecasts and satellite pictures showed that it should be/it was totally overcast, but it was not! I could see the stars and the aurora through the thin clouds! So, give it a try anyway...it could be worth of it!

    Tools and how the use/read them:

    1. Condition of the sun - Flares, CME's or Coronal holes...

    Ok, usually I start my quest for information from next few places mainly because I just want to know what to expect!

  • http://www.spaceweather.com/ Gives usually a pretty good overview of the sun's activity and also some estimates for auroral activity after the notable "eruptions" in the sun... but this place is not for serious real time aurora reports! It can give you a information about auroras in progress only during a long lasting storms!

  • Jan Alvestad's Solar Terrestrial Activity Report Gives you all the same information about the sun's activity as the Spaceweather.com but is much more comprehensive and has also other info! During the aurora season I use this place a lot!

  • Current Solar Data NOAA data Full of near real time data, but at this point I check the left image from the upper row. Because from it, you can see has there been any notable flares (big peaks). If so, then I check out those earlier sites and...

  • STD Aurora discussion forum

    ..to find out what they are writing about those flares and, if there was any notable CME's which could be heading this way. STD Aurora discussion Forum is very good place to find info about auroras and the sun! There you can ask from experts about these things and also sometimes people do submit some aurora sightings to this forum....Although STD has also own pages for aurora sighting reports...which is: STD Aurora sighting reports

  • Today's Space Weather (Space Enviroment Center/NOAA) 3-Day Solar&Geophysical Activity Forecast!

  • Latest STD Coronal Mass Ejection Time of Arrival Prediction by STD!!!

    2. Solarwind, conditions here on earth, waiting and watching real time info...

    Well, now we have get in to the real thing! Which is waiting and especially waiting for impact to occur...

  • SWEPAM: 3 days and 6 hours and Example This site tells you a density, speed and temperature of the solar wind! If you happen to see that the curves suddenly shoot sky high, get out! When that happens you have maybe hour or so to prepare yourseft to the spectacle...well, of course it depends on the speed of the solar wind...and some other things.

  • EPAM: 3 days and 6 hours. This site tells you....something. ;-) I really don't know what all those graphs are about, but as far as I have understand you can still find something pretty important from here. I have heard and saw how the graphs on these pages often start to rise even before you can see the actual shockfront from SWEPAM. So, if you are waiting CME to arrive and it hasn't arrived yet, but these graph start to rise...maybe it's close.

    IMF ( Interplanetary Magnetic Field ): Ok, this is VERY IMPORTANT factor and usually only by looking at the direction of the IMF, you can say is there any big aurora in progress or not! If the IMF (Polar angle) points strongly north, there shouldn't be any strong aurora in progress, but if it starts to turn strongly south... maybe all hell is breaking loose - and you are indoors watching the computer screen! ;-) Also, you should be aware that the conditions can chance very quickly - at the one moment it seems that there isn't anything going on and the next moment the sky explodes in colors!

    Through these links you can see the state of IMF:

  • Current Solar Wind Conditions (Look at the Polar Angle)
  • MAG (magnetic field) - 2 hour, 6 hour, 24 hour, 3 day and 7 day (Look at the yellow Bz graph. If the graph is under the - - - line, the IMF is pointing South, but if the graph is above that line the IMF is also pointing North)
  • IMF...and what is it!
  • Read: Solar Eruptions!

  • Costello Predicted Activity Index Gives an near real time estimate of forecoming auroral activity! I think this is a good site!

  • Aurora Sentry by Paul Kelley This site is must!!! Has TONS of near real time stuff! Almost all in one page! From here you can find CANOPUS Real Time Auroral Oval, NOAA/POES auroral oval, STD Visible Auroral Oval, Polar Visible Image, Polar Ultraviolet Image and so on....

  • Great-Red-Spot.com (Davis Kendall) If possible - from here you can find even more information about current conditions, alerts, warning, aurora forecasts and else! Take time to check this place out, because it's worth of it!!!

  • Magnetometers: You have to find out is there any magnetometers near your location! From Aurora Sentry link above you can find few magnetometers from all around the globe. From graph of the magnetogram you can see exactly when the action has begun, when the most intense phase was and how big the geomagnetic disturbance was or is! Example, Here you can see the magnetogram graph from Sodankyla Geophysical Observatory in Finland and...if you see there in the uppermost picture some large (exp. 600-1000 nT) peaks downwards, you know that then we had some aurora!

  • Auroral Activity Observation Network Reports If the reports are pouring in all the time...maybe there is also something going on....

    AND (for fun)

  • SGO's "Live" All Sky Cam from Sodankylä, Finland If you don't have money to travel far north to see "real" northern lights, with this "live" CAM you can get some kind of idea how unbelievable they can be at best (of course there has to be some activity before you can see it;-) Also you must remember to refresh the picture every minute or so!

    3. Waiting outdoors...

    Ok, when I have closed the door of my apartment I am on my own. I don't have a laptop with internet connection or any other equipments what you can buy with money.I just have to rely on my eyes, "hunch" and especially nerves...;-) (which is by the way pretty hard sometimes...) If the aurora isn't progress when I am outdoors, I try to see if there is any aurora like glow or even faint auroral arc in the sky. (At my latitude there is almost allways at least some glow visible long before the action really starts!) If there is or if it occurs, I know that something could be in store. Especially seeing an auroral arc is very important sign for me. According to my own memories more or less every display starts with the auroral arc!

    When you have sighted the arc it's time for some serious waiting, because at least I can't see when the action might start-will it take 10 minutes or 2 hours. Anyway, usually little before the aurora starts to peak, the arc starts to rise (slowly or fast) and it often get's also more discrete than before, also some lonely rays may appear. When this happens it's possible that the "eruption is close by...or then it isn't! I don't know, I just wait so long that I will find out what is it going to do.

    If the luck is with you, you get your display and you can start to wait for the second one. Fairly often aurora peaks at least two times a night. Most of my small auroras have first peaked near midnight (wintertime), 1.00AM (summertime) and then two to three hours after that! Of course it doesn't happen like this allways, very often there just isn't going to be any second peak, but how can I know it...I can't. Anyway, I am unemployed and have all the time in the world to just wait and sit and watch the sky. You never know what is going to happen, maybe a moose will swim past the dock at the sunrise or maybe a bolide of my life will suddenly streaks through the sky or something else...