On a whim one October night in 2003, my then-boyfriend and I chased my first aurora borealis up I-5 toward Canada. We saw streaks of northern lights through the windshield as we sped past the Skagit Valley, but we’d heard farther north was better. In British Columbia, we lay, awestruck, in a cabbage field as the whole sky pulsated with vibrant green waves and curtains of light.
We would have seen a spectacular show even in Washington. It was one of the strongest solar storms in recorded history. Aurora borealis danced as far south as California and Florida. (Even astronomical phenomena have a fondness for Jewish grandparents.) Hooked, we kept up the chase. Huge sunspots unleashed solar flares, and when they hit we’d drive anywhere in Washington with clear skies, low light pollution, and an unobstructed northward view, craving another fix.
Those strong northern lights here were an anomaly. The sun undergoes an 11-year cycle of activity, with plentiful sunspots during solar maximum and few during solar minimum. I didn’t see auroras for a decade. The latest solar cycle has been the weakest in a century. I started to lose — for lack of a better word — faith.
I’m not exactly a spiritual person. The closest I come to experiencing a sense of wonder — at least, the closest that doesn’t involve Northwest berries or New York whitefish — is in nature. Even after decades, a view of Rainier or the North Cascades across a wildflower meadow still grabs me somewhere deep and unmapped. Aurora borealis stirs this same awe, amplified by its elusive and kaleidoscopic nature. I’ve never felt this way in a synagogue.
Luckily, Jewish culture and identity accommodate a wide spectrum of belief and lack thereof. Nature stirs a sense of wonder across the spectrum of religiosity and reminds us of our common ground — or, in this case, common sky. Judaism depends on the night sky. Holidays follow a lunar calendar. We end Shabbat when three stars appear, and we build sukkot roofs with gaps to see stars. Jews recite the maariv aravim prayer to thank God for bringing on the night and separating darkness from light. There are brachot for natural phenomena, like seeing rainbows and the sea.
Auroras are most common in spring and fall, but they also happen throughout the winter and, in latitudes like ours, during warmer months too. They can compete
with summer Lag B’Omer bonfires, appear over sukkah roofs in fall, flicker with Hanukkah lights in winter, or one-up Purim’s springtime rule-bending by muddling the separation of darkness and light.
I needed to see auroras here again, so in 2015 I started a Facebook group called Aurora Borealis Washington State. I figured we’d get roughly a minyan of deprived, kvetching aurora enthusiasts, but within a few months over 2,000 members were updating each other on aurora forecasts, activity, and photography, and commiserating when Washington was covered in clouds and rain while Alaska glowed.
Sometimes following auroras pays off. Last fall, I was out past midnight chasing lights. I didn’t feel like going far, so I brought my tripod to Green Lake, waited a few hours, and decided to pack up. But halfway home, I pulled over on instinct and checked my phone. The websites showed activity again, so I went back. For an hour around 2 a.m., Green Lake lived up to its name, reflecting the color pulsing through the sky to the northeast. It was the best I’d seen in years.
Chasing the Light
- The Kp index, a global geomagnetic storm index, should be at least four or five (on a scale of ten) for faint activity, or six or higher for good auroras. If it’s seven or above, don’t even consider staying home.
- The Bz index, a measure of the interplanetary magnetic field, should be a negative number.
- Watch for recent active sunspots sending flares toward Earth, or solar wind streams hitting Earth.
- Wait for clear weather. Check out a clear dark sky chart for Washington state.
- Monitor websites like spaceweather.com, solarham.net, or the Washington State Aurora Borealis group on Facebook.
- Go north if you can. Farther east helps, too; geomagnetic latitude lines put Eastern Washington north of Western Washington.
- Find a place with very little light pollution, where you can see the horizon to the northeast. Eastern Washington has great spots, and some mountain passes, parking lots, and camping areas have unobstructed northern views.
- A body of water to the north reflects auroras beautifully. There are spots around Whidbey, Anacortes, Edmonds, and the San Juans.
- An interesting object — such as a tree, a house, or tall flowers — in the foreground is great for aurora photos.
- Carry red-tinted flashlights for the sake of other aurora chasers whose eyes have adjusted to the dark. Dim headlights when entering a parking lot.
- Bring a tripod and extra camera batteries or a charger.
- Pack a thermos of hot chocolate, tell someone where you’re going, and bring more warm clothes than you think you’ll need.
- Auroras are typically best around midnight but could happen any time it’s dark.
- Be patient. Even when auroras are forecasted, you’ll often see very little or nothing. The magnetic field doesn’t cooperate. The clouds roll in. It happens. Nobody can guarantee if or when it’ll happen, even with the best predictions.