January 2014 is a big time for hunters in America.
Northern Lights hunters, that is.
The aurora borealis, known as the "Northern Lights," is a naturally occurring light display that illuminates the night sky of several northern countries between September and March every year.
This year, however, is the cap to an eleven-year cycle in solar activity that guarantees especially luminous light shows. The more solar storms that take place, the brighter the aurora borealis will shine.
Solar flares are released from the sun, and the particles from that flare (called a "coronal mass ejection") interact with gases in Earth's atmosphere to create the vivid greens, yellows, reds, and purples associated with the phenomenon.
The aurora borealis is most frequently seen in the "auroral ovals," rings which surround the north and south poles. When a strong solar storm happens, the occurrences of the aurora borealis can extend past the usual parameters of the ring into areas farther away from the pole. It can be hard to predict or pinpoint where and when the lights will occur, but these three places are very well known for their gazing opportunities:
Often touted as the "best place in the United States" to catch a glimpse of the solar light show, Fairbanks is strategically advantageous because of its prime location on the northern auroral oval and inland from coastal clouding. Fairbanks is specially equipped for borealis looky-loos, too; rather than exposing guests to the bracing cold, many resorts like Chena Hot Springs offer "Northern Lights" alarms to awaken guests and hot springs from which to watch the dancing lights, a perfect luxury for this unusual opportunity.
Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado
A sweeping expanse containing 193,060 acres in a 30-by-60 mile plot of land east of Fort Collins, the Pawnee National Grassland is an idyllic spot for borealis-gazing. Sporting wide spaces and little to no light pollution, it provides an excellent spot to stretch out and start crossing the Northern Lights off the old bucket list. It's especially likely this year, as the solar flares predicted to take place in January 2014 are much farther south than in previous years. Just make sure you're not squatting on private land!
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Founded in 1818, Cherry Springs State Park in the north central Pennsylvania is a hot spot for astronomers and amateurs alike. The park sits on 82 acres situated in the Susquehannock State Forest and derives its name from the dense population of black cherry trees within its borders. At least 5 sightings of the elusive Northern Lights were recorded within 2013 alone. Cherry Springs Park was named a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association and provides numerous programs for stargazers and other adventurers hoping to catch the aurora borealis. Try your luck here and maybe you'll report a sighting for 2014!
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