Common Aurora Questions Answered

2014-09-13 19:28:59.000 – Ryan Knapp,  Weather Observer/Meteorologist

Last night’s Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

Last night we were treated to a short but beautiful display of the Northern Lights. As the event was occurring we posted an image to our Facebook feed and our Twitter feed which you can see in the thumbnail to this comment. This image has been making the rounds today in not only the Social Media sphere but the News sphere too. With this image, there have been several questions asked by individuals. So, I thought I’d take this comment to address a few of the common ones we have seen/responded to through the day.

1. What kind of webcam/camera did you use? What were its settings?

While the Mount Washington Observatory does have a webcam that aims north, it does not currently have a sensor large enough or settings long enough to allow for ‘live’ viewing at night. So, in this case, the camera that was used was a Canon 60D (DSLR). The settings were 17mm lens, f2.8, ISO 400, 15 sec exposure, shot in RAW and edited through Canon RAW editing software.

2. Can I have permission to use this image in our media?

Yes, so long as you provide credit to the member supported, non-profit Mount Washington Observatory and it is used in good taste. And, if possible, we would appreciate it if you can drop us a line to let us know where and when you used it.

3. Did you take any video of it?

Yes, one of our Observers used his camera to do some time-lapses of the event. It is available HERE.

4. Are they really that vivid?

No. The colors are a lot more muted to the naked eye and most see more of an ‘alien green’ or grey. Occasionally though, color can be seen and some individuals can see all the colors, again muted though. However, while the colors may not be as vivid, the curtains, pillars, and movements can be seen with the naked eye.

5. When can we see them again?

The Mount Washington Observatory is a weather observatory and does not measure or monitor space related activity. If, when doing an hourly weather observation we spot an Aurora, we will code it as ‘AURBO’ in our METARs and try to share an image to our Facebook and Twitter feeds as they occur. If you are looking for information as to when they might occur again, you can check out,, or any other available prediction sites or smartphone apps.

6. I didn’t see it last night! How long do they normally last? How do I see them?

They can last anywhere from a couple of minutes to sometimes several hours. In the case of last night, they only lasted about 2 hours with another flare up late in the night that lasted about 30 minutes. Optimal viewing is on nights when a CME is expected to hit Earth – the larger the better for our latitudes or further south. You want cloudless skies, or at least cloudless to the north as much as possible. Get away from city lights as much as possible, too and hope there is little to no moonlight. Even a sliver of a moon can muddle things. Going north helps, but you can also aim for locations that provide you with long northern vistas such as lakes, meadows, hills, or mountains. And lastly, be patient! I have gone out several times in my off time and waited all night only to head home empty handed. Sometimes you’ll see them sometimes you won’t. It is all just about being at the right place at the right time.

7. Can I drive up and see them? Can I hike up and see them?

The Mt. Washington Auto Road operates separately from the Mount Washington Observatory. As of now, they do not have any overnight operating hours. So you will not be able to drive to the summit of Mt. Washington. But if you are looking for elevation gain, there are several roads that go up lower elevation mountains and passes. If you hike up, you can view them from the summit but be aware that there are no facilities open through the night and camping is prohibited within the NH State Park boundaries or anywhere above tree line. So, you can hike up but be prepared to hike down.

8. Can I purchase this image?

Yes! We have made this image and others available on our SmugMug site. Orders are handled entirely by SmugMug, but a portion of your proceeds will go towards supporting the membership supported, nonprofit Mount Washington Observatory. It should be noted that if you are interested in printing the entire pano, they do not have a standard stock sizes that will fit it. So to get around this, choose an image size and when checking out, before paying there will be an option to adjust the cropping of the image. If you choose ‘NONE’, you will lose the stock crop and will get the full pano with two white bars (one above, one below) that can then be cut off and framed as you see fit. And it seems most people have been going with an 11×14 uncropped image according to the stats SmugMug provided us with.


Ryan Knapp,  Weather Observer/Meteorologist

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