Demystifying Michigan’s Northern Lights

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If you had your eyes on the sky in the Mackinac area last weekend, you may have had a front row seat to one of nature’s most breathtaking phenomena: the Aurora Borealis. Known more commonly as the Northern Lights, this celestial show has captivated Michiganders for centuries.

But, the most recent appearance was a bit surprising. In the upper Northern Hemisphere, the Lights generally make their much-anticipated appearance between late August and mid-April. This is because of the long nights (and shorter days), as well as cloud coverage patterns at higher—and colder—altitudes.

This leaves Michigan adventure-seekers with a few major questions

  1. Where does the Aurora Borealis even come from?

At the most basic level, the spectacle is a result of particles interacting with each other in Earth’s atmosphere. Electrons from space are energized as they enter, then crashing into oxygen and nitrogen, “exciting” those molecules in the process. When the oxygen and nitrogen calm down, they release their energy in the form of red, blue, pink, green and yellow light. The planet’s magnetic field spreads the beautiful colors outward from the Arctic Circle, from an area that is known as the “magnetic pole.”

  1. Why did the Northern Lights appear in July?

The Aurora Borealis doesn’t happen in predictable intervals, as it all depends on when the electrons happen to collide with our atmosphere. The phenomenon happens year-round—we just aren’t able to easily see it with the longer days of summer. Mackinac was able to witness the special show thanks to a recent intense solar storm. Our Sun is always releasing solar flares and waves of incredible heat, but coronal mass ejections are unusually gigantic explosions of solar plasma. These disrupt the star’s own magnetic field, and the electrons from it are what was responsible for the Lights on our planet.

  1. What are the best viewing spots in Michigan?

Understandably, the farther north you go in Michigan, the higher chance you have of catching the action. In the Lower Peninsula, your best chance is the Petoskey area along the northwest shore. Across the Bridge, Manistique is not too much longer of a drive, though for the absolute best Instagram-worthy moments, you’ll want to head to Marquette or the Keweenaw Peninsula. It will be nothing but you, nature, and the electric night sky!

 

It is a couple more months until Aurora Borealis season is back in full swing. Until then, wrap up summer with a picnic trip.