Chasing Lights: Ann Arbor's Melissa Kaelin knows the secrets to seeing the aurora borealis right here in Michigan
You don't need to go to Tromsø, Norway to see the aurora borealis—even though the town, more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is considered one of the best spots to view the natural phenomenon.
You don't even need to drive your car to the upper parts of Canada to see the northern lights, which occur when energized sun particles smash into the Earth's outer atmosphere and are redirected by the magnetic field toward the planet's poles. (Southern lights exist, too.)
Melissa Kaelin—founder of the Facebook group Michigan Aurora Chasers, co-founder of the International Aurora Summit, and author of Below the 45th Parallel: The Beginner's Guide to Chasing the Aurora in the Great Lakes Region—will tell you how to witness this beautiful sight here in Michigan when she appears at the Ann Arbor District Library's Westgate Branch on Thursday, May 11, 6:30-7:30 pm, for a chat.
Q: Let's get right down to business. I received an alert from one of my aurora apps last night [April 18] about a G1 storm. Now I’m constantly looking at the Michigan Aurora Chasers site for updates. But what do you – the person in charge of the Michigan Aurora Chasers – do when you get an alert?
A: I constantly monitor conditions, especially when we get watches and warnings that may indicate we’ll see geomagnetic storm conditions that could reach the state of Michigan. After I get a warning or a watch in my email inbox, I start monitoring some of the forecasting models that I prefer and try to decide, "Hmm, do we alert everyone that this is the time to go out and chase? Or is this going to be more of a sleeper?"
Q: “Everyone” is the Michigan Aurora Chasers community on Facebook. How did that group come about?
A: I’ve been an aurora chaser ever since I discovered I could see Northern Lights in my backyard, which was over 10 years ago when I was living in Minnesota. I’ve been a member of several aurora-chasing groups, and when I moved to Michigan, I looked around and found a few here. Some were regional and some were much less active, especially when it comes to alerts. So my motivation was to create a positive, supportive community space where we can help one another and where it’s OK to ask questions so you can learn what it takes to chase the Northern Lights. Because there is a lot that goes into it. People don’t realize what it takes to catch the Northern Lights at a lower latitude. That was my motivation for starting the group.
Q: So other groups aren’t quite as open to questions?
A: There are some groups in the Great Lakes region that are very active with sightings and alerts, but many moderators have become very particular about just focusing on alerts, or allowing only moderators to make posts about alerts and the possibility of sightings. When you open the group to questions, you may get so many that it can feel unmanageable.
Q: In March, there was a magnificent aurora show, and it generated a lot more activity on the Michigan Aurora Chasers, adding thousands of additional followers. How are you keeping up with that level of activity?
A: The Michigan Aurora Chasers exploded in membership way faster than I thought it would. We made it very visual; we posted a lot of how-to guides and made many resources available. We encouraged questions, and we appointed a team of administrators and experts. But I never expected it to take off the way it did. We reached over 30,000 members in the first two months, and we’re just about to hit 70,000 members. [Note: The site recently surged over 71,000 members.]
Q: And aurora in Michigan is rarer than in other locations because of the clouds and the lake effect here. It’s frustrating, but you seem to welcome the challenge?
A: I’ve never been one to pass up a challenge! I think we have a lot of members in the group that take that same approach. We are pretty far south to see the lights. I encourage people to keep in mind that it is a rare phenomenon, so if you don’t catch it the first time, try not to be disappointed. This is something that most people in the world never get to experience. But the unique thing about this group is that we do catch so many sightings now. We have such a large, engaged, and active group that our chasers are finding aurora at the faintest hint and documenting it. Not all groups have that level of engagement. Also, once you see aurora the first time, you realize what to look for and that helps you on the chase. You’re gaining experience all the time. But yes, chasing in Michigan can be tough, both because of the lake effect that produces clouds and because we’re in the lower latitudes. If you were to go farther north, even to other states, you might see more color than you tend to in Michigan.
Q: Why do they see more color?
A: The Northern Lights filter down to us through the North Pole so they have to come a very long way to reach the Great Lakes region. And by the time they reach us, I believe they are dimmer in appearance. It takes a lot more effort and a lot more energy and particles to create enough sparks in the sky to create color. We do get some colorful shows but often they are just silver or white to the eye.
Q: Yet a camera catches so much more.
A: Yes, that’s another interesting thing to address: So many people see aurora photos and think they’re edited and saturated in Photoshop to an unbelievable point. But the fact of the matter is that cameras capture all light that’s present in the sky. Even without any editing, they will capture more color and more light than the human eye does because humans are not nocturnal creatures. We have limitations in the rods and cones of our eyes that don’t allow us to see color well in the dark. So the camera will always capture more. Does that mean that you won’t see color with your own eyes? Not necessarily. And I truly think that aurora photography is an art form. We get some naysayers who say, "Well, if I can’t see it without the unaided eye, I don’t consider it a real aurora." But it is aurora; it’s just captured with a more powerful tool. One thing that people don’t know about me is that I don’t consider myself an aurora photographer. I’ve captured some great photos on my iPhone 14, which has come a long way in low-light technology, but instead, I come to the chase inspired to write about it. I’ve been writing about the aurora and the night sky for many years in many capacities.
Q: What do you cover in your recent book, Below the 45th Parallel: The Beginner's Guide to Chasing the Aurora in the Great Lakes Region?
A: My book was inspired by the volunteer work I do with the Michigan Aurora Chasers, sharing the advice and tips that help people on the ground see the Northern Lights. It’s a book for beginners but I try to address all the different challenges you run across: Finding a truly dark sky, dealing with ambient light from the moon, and knowing what numbers and data you need to actually see a show. There are all these Northern Lights forecasting apps out there, but they're not necessarily going to get you to a Northern Lights display. It’s because they’re relying on Kp for the most part. Kp is an index that measures auroral strength on a scale of 0-9, but it’s a three-hour average. So a lot of the apps are giving you average numbers from the last few hours about what activity looks like and that’s not going to tell you when the sky itself is lighting up.
Q: Can you talk about what’s happening right now that’s making the Northern Lights a more frequent and sometimes more intense occurrence?
A: Aurora is created by a process that starts on the surface of our sun. The sun creates solar wind that travels through outer space to Earth’s atmosphere, and depending on the different conditions and whether they align, this can lead to Northern Lights. The sun also moves on an 11-year cycle, and we’re approaching the maximum of that solar cycle, which will be in 2025. Until solar maximum, the Northern Lights will become more powerful and more frequent on a gradual basis. So this is a great time to be chasing the Lights. It’s just going to get better from here!
Q: I know you write a lot about the importance of the “Bz” number. Tell us what that is and why we need to pay attention to it.
A: The Bz is a component of the interplanetary magnetic field that is either oriented northward or southward, and that orientation is deciding whether to let the aurora flow into our atmosphere. The Bz is really the gatekeeper. What we try to explain to people in the group is that without the help of the Bz, you won’t get the powerful Northern Lights display you want. You need that number to be extremely negative to be in our favor in lower latitudes. And when that number is positive, it can shut things down instantly.
Q: So when night approaches and you're trying to decide whether to hop in your car and head north, you need a lot more information than just that Kp index?
A: There are many factors to consider. The Kp index is more helpful but not a lot of apps and websites are sharing the actual value because it’s hard to monitor. It comes from magnetometers around the globe. We also have the hemispheric power index, how many gigawatts of power we’re seeing in the atmosphere. We have the Bz number and the components of solar wind – the wind speed and density. A dedicated aurora chaser will consider all these things when chasing. Even then, things can change pretty fast.
Q: That explains why thousands of Michigan Aurora Chasers are just waiting to see what you have to say!
A: Yeah. [laughs]. The first thing we try to tell people is that aurora is never guaranteed. People always ask on any given night—“Is it possible tonight?” And there’s always a chance that the Northern Lights will show up. But it really comes down to monitoring the data and what you’re actually seeing in the sky – just being aware.
Q: People want shortcuts, but it sounds like there are no shortcuts when chasing aurora.
A: No, there aren't. Aurora is also known as “space weather,” and it’s an emerging science. Even some of the world’s leading space scientists still don’t know how to predict an aurora with accuracy. We’re limited in what we can capture from outer space. We have new satellites and spacecraft going up all the time to monitor space weather, but it truly is unpredictable.
Q: What else is in your book?
A: I have a section that I call “A Field Guide to Viewing the Aurora in the Dark.” The first thing I recommend is to let your eyes adjust to the dark. Take at least five full minutes, maybe more. The more they adjust, the more light and color you will see. Don’t look at any lights or phones. Then I recommend looking low on the northern horizon because it’s not always going to be high or above you. The horizon is often where it starts. I also mention that it comes in waves. I’ve started recommending that people devote at least three hours to aurora sightings. In one of the better shows in 2022, the sub-auroral arc called STEVE came and went within 15 minutes, so if you took a break, you missed it! Chasing takes patience and dedication. And you have to be forgiving of yourself if you miss it. We all miss aurora displays sometimes. It’s difficult, that fear of missing out. The biggest piece of advice I like to share these days is that if you’re going on an aurora chase, plan at least one other attraction, stop, or feature that you’re looking forward to just in case you do get aced.
Q: I see a lot of chatter on the Michigan Aurora Chasers site about night sky etiquette and ways to be safe or considerate of others. Can you talk a bit about that?
A: Yeah, night sky etiquette is becoming more important. First of all, this is not going to be your standard everyday drive. You’re taking a trip and you should be prepared with emergency supplies. People need to consider road conditions, weather, and safety factors. You could end up outside cellphone service or stuck outside longer than you anticipate. We also encourage people to use night sky etiquette – turning off all lights, for example. This is not only to be respectful of others, but to also let your eyes adjust to the dark. You really will see so much more if you do. We also encourage people to stay out of the way of other photographers and be considerate of everyone in the vicinity, to respect private property and wildlife habitats in parks.
Q: What’s driving our desire to see the Northern Lights? It’s not just the “wow” of a fireworks show. It’s something else. If you had to name it, what is it we’re looking for out there?
A: This is life-affirming, ethereal, spiritual stuff. Putting it into words is difficult. One of the things I try to do is empower people who have never seen the Northern Lights. When people see it for the first time, there’s something about it you cannot describe. They are simply in awe. I live for that moment. The stories that I’ve heard over the years are mind-blowing and inspiring. I talked with someone last December who had a terminal diagnosis of cancer and had only been given a few months to live and our group helped her to see this dream of hers in her last month. To hear a story like that, how can you even process that? I’ve heard stories of people who have had a loved one pass away and are looking for a sign or a bit of hope from our planet to keep going.
Q: And that inspiration goes way back in time to myths and stories from many cultures around the world.
A: Yes! I have a passion for some of the culture and mythology around the aurora borealis, and I love exploring the myths. In North America, tribal cultures would explain the Northern Lights as the torches that you see in heaven as souls lead their loved ones to paradise. I recently got to visit the land of the Makah tribe in Washington state where they thought that the Lights indicated fires that burned from blubber-boiling pots in the whaling communities up north. In Europe, because they are also in lower latitudes and frequently see the Northern Lights as a red hue, the've historically been interpreted as an omen of war or the souls of lost warriors lost in battle.
Q: So now we know what your night job is. What is your day job?
A: I’m very fortunate to work at the University of Michigan in the Department of Climate and Space. I work in communications where I have the opportunity to interview the world’s leading scientists and engineers in the field of space weather and climate sciences. And the people in the office who I get to interact with every day are studying the solar wind and how the aurora comes into our atmosphere – what it looks like at the ionosphere, for example. They’re working on some of the technology in monitoring future aurora and some of the NASA missions and launches that are working to advance the science.
Q: What are your personal goals when it comes to chasing the Northern Lights?
A: I moved to Ann Arbor just last year, and ever since I’ve been telling myself, “I know for a fact that you can see the Northern Lights in Michigan anywhere if the conditions align.” Now I need to prove this to myself, and I’ve been watching for the right opportunities to get outside right here in my own backyard in northern Ann Arbor. We’ve had two very strong storms in 2023 already where aurora was possible across the entire state of Michigan. Unfortunately, on both nights I had a thin layer of clouds on my northern horizon. But on February 26, I was able to catch the aurora between Ann Arbor and East Lansing! What we need to see it in Michigan is a G2 storm, which is the equivalent of a Kp6. That is strong enough to bring aurora across the entire state. And on March 23-24, I was able to catch the aurora just north of Flint, very close to the city. So I’m thrilled that I have done the work and achieved my goal.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Melissa Kaelin appears at the Ann Arbor District Library's Westgate location on Thursday, May 11, 6:30-7:30 pm, for a chat about the aurora borealis and her book, "Below the 45th Parallel: The Beginner's Guide to Chasing the Aurora in the Great Lakes Region." This free event includes a signing with books for sale.