Aurora lights are out as fall equinox approaches

Sep 17, 2021

Todd Salat watches the aurora over the Kenai Peninsula.
Credit Courtesy of Todd Salat

Fall hunting season has started in Alaska. But it’s not the only kind of hunting underway.

“Historically, September has been one of my favorite times of the year to go aurora hunting," said Todd Salat. He's an aurora photographer based out of Anchorage.

He saw his first aurora three decades ago, as a student in Laramie, Wyo. He photographed his first aurora, over Portage, the year he came to Alaska.

"And I was hooked," he said. "From that moment on, I started to obsess.”

Salat said this fall has been great for aurora viewing.

Generally, early autumn is an ideal time to look for the lights. That’s for a few reasons.

“One, it’s not too cold. And the water’s not frozen yet, so you get beautiful reflections and things like that off lakes and ponds," Salat said. "And two, statistically, September and March — the equinox months — are the most active geomagnetically, is the kind of scientific buzzword for it.”

That’s because during equinox, the earth’s poles are angled just so that the charged particles that drive the aurora are accelerated.

But it’s not all good news in September. 

“It’s also one of the rainiest, cloudiest months of the year," Salat said.

He said there’s a good deal of luck — and good weather — required.

Last weekend, facing a grim forecast in Anchorage, he chased a clear patch of sky down to Soldotna.

"They weren’t super brilliant, but the crescent moon was setting, I had the Milky Way galaxy straight ahead and aurora glow to the north," he said.

This weekend, he’s in Fairbanks. Thursday's display was an exercise in patience.

“There was no aurora at midnight, at 1 a.m., nothing," he said. "At 2 a.m., everyone’s falling asleep.”

And then — a green band formed.

“The sky split open with auroras and they were dancing straight overhead, and people were hooting and hollering," he said. "And it was just amazing.”

Salat makes a living getting shots of the aurora.

For those just starting out with aurora photography, he recommends practicing on a tree at night. That way, when it’s time for the big show, there are no surprises.

“But I’d say the hardest part is to be awake and to go the distance," he said. "Last week, if you would’ve gotten tired at midnight or 1:00 a.m. and gone to bed or quit, you would’ve missed the show of a lifetime.”

Aurora activity is expected tonight across most of Alaska, including part of the Kenai Peninsula. 

You can read more about the aurora forecast on the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute website.