How to see the Northern Lights in southern Arizona

Published: Apr. 26, 2023 at 10:50 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - According to scientists, now is your chance to see the Northern Lights without having to go far.

Many people in southern Arizona have been lucky enough to see the natural phenomenon known as Aurora Borealis.

David Rankin, a senior survey operations specialist with Catalina Sky Survey said the last time the lights were seen this far south was in 2001.

“If the (solar) storm is really strong, like this last one it will actually compress those magnetic field lines into the earth and you’ll start seeing the Northern Lights at latitudes that are much, much closer to the equator,” Rankin said.

Nicholas Boettcher is an avid photographer. He runs and operates DiPiDiRi Photography in Tucson. Boettcher said shooting phenomena in the sky is one of his biggest passions.

“I was going out to shoot the Leonid Meteor Shower because the peak was that evening and I was going to shoot the Milky Way rising,” Boettcher said.

He said he never expected to capture the Aurora Borealis in southern Arizona.

“It was pure excitement,” Boettcher said. “I literally jumped out of my truck and ran down the street but I just knew I had something extraordinary, special.”

The Catalina Sky Survey captured video of the polar lights from the sky cameras at the Mt. Bigelow Observatory.

Experts say the colors in the aurora come mostly from gasses like nitrogen and oxygen. Rankin said these gases get excited by the sun’s charged plasma and glow pink/red (nitrogen) and green/blue (oxygen).

“I would have loved to see more green in the photo, but magenta is rare,” Boettcher said. “There is not a lot of magenta you see when you are looking at the Aurora Borealis.”

According to Rankin, even though the lights look pretty and bright, they can actually cause big problems.

“They carry a charge with them. That charge can push through the earth’s magnetic field,” Rankin said. “It can actually excite our electrical grid and communications and interfere with radio signals. When that happens, it can literally build up an electric charge in our power grid that can wreak havoc if it’s a large enough flare.”

Despite the havoc the lights might cause, Boettcher said he is eager to see the unforgettable sight again right in his own backyard.

“This is just barely the beginning,” Boettcher said. “I am really intrigued to see what I will be able to capture in the future here in Tucson.”

Rankin said it’s hard to predict when the next sighting will be but the odds are higher now than ever before.

“During solar maximum which we are heading into the odds of seeing them are much higher,” Rankin said. “There is a better chance in the coming weeks or even in the coming years that we could get another significant storm that we just got a couple of days ago that hits the Earth.

If you search for the Northern Lights, Rankin said it’s best to look at the “Space Weather Prediction Center” website. This website tracks the best times and places to see the lights.

Rankin also recommends using a cell phone camera. The camera lenses will allow people to capture more colors that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

He adds that the best chance you have in order to see the Northern Lights for yourself is by driving as far away from the city as possible. The darker it is, the better your chance of seeing this beautiful, rare sight.

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