When & Where To See The Northern Lights in the PNW

The northern lights are on many people’s bucket lists. The magical green hue against the dark backdrop of the sky is truly a sight to behold. But when and where can you behold it is the question. And in the US, the Pacific Northwest seems to be the answer.

You can see the northern lights during winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. 

During intense solar storms that typically occur in May and June, the northern lights might become visible over West Seattle’s horizons and in western Oregon’s skies.

In this article, we will look at different PNW places in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, where the northern lights might be visible, including:

  • Bellingham, Washington 
  • Oroville, Washington
  • Metaline Falls, Washington
  • Seattle, Washington
  • Salem, Oregon
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Alpine, Alaska
  • Fairbanks, Alaska

Why the Pacific Northwest is Ideal for Seeing the Northern Lights

The ideal conditions for watching the northern lights are as follows:

  • Long hours of darkness – This is one of the most crucial aspects of northern lights. Northern lights occur in the topmost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, and if things on the ground aren’t dark enough, you might miss the aurora borealis.
  • Proximity to the North Pole – This makes the Pacific Northwest one of the best places in America to witness the aurora borealis. The closer one is to the north pole, the best chances one has of seeing the northern lights as the phenomenon is the strongest over the north pole.
  • Lack of artificial lighting – This circles back to darkness. In places with longer days, the sky isn’t dark enough to reveal the northern lights when the phenomenon occurs. But most of those are away from the north anyway. Closer to the north, the issue is artificial lightning.

Northern Lights: The Perfect Time

The best time to view the northern lights starts in September and continues until April. This seems counterproductive to the darkness duration required for appropriate aurora borealis visibility, doesn’t it? But luminescence is directly correlated with the intensity of the explosions taking place on the sun.

These explosions are far more intense during the periods just before and after summer. The intensity is also present during the summer, but that’s when the long daytime cuts into the visibility factor.

The best time to see the northern lights is 7 hours after sunset. And this can happen throughout the year, but there aren’t enough hours of darkness on the north pole to see the northern lights during the summer.

May, June, July, and August are the worst months to witness the aurora borealis. The dark hours are so few that the northern lights (despite manifesting in the top layer of the Earth’s atmosphere) don’t become evident to those on the surface.

There are northern lights tours for international and domestic tourists in Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Greenland, and Finland. Since the aurora borealis phenomenon is spread out, the odds of it becoming predictably spot-specific are lower.

Where to See Northern Lights in The Pacific Northwest (by State)

Washington

northern lights over mount rainier
Northern lights over Mt. Rainier

To see the northern lights, you need to be in the north-most region of the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, you must be in a town or village with little artificial lighting.

You can start seeing the northern lights as low as Oregon if there is serious solar activity. But most often, Alaska is the best state in the PNW to see the northern lights.

It has the perfect combination of long dark hours, low artificial lighting, and clear skies to record aurora borealis. Other parts of the Pacific Northwest have lower odds of recording the aurora borealis. Here is what the northern lights forecast looks like for the Pacific Northwest.

According to past records, Washington gets to experience the aurora borealis 2 times every 7 years. It seems like 2022 is a year when the rural belts of the state have a shot at witnessing the majestic northern lights.

The odds of seeing aurora borealis in Washington are 3% in urban and 7% in rural areas. Bellingham, Oroville, and Metaline Falls are the places with the highest likelihood of witnessing the aurora borealis in 2022 and 2023. Seattle has slightly lower odds, but it is technically possible for the hue of the northern lights to paint the horizons of Seattle.

The best spot to see northern lights in Washington is Metaline Falls during average winter conditions. However, a solar storm might produce strong northern lights visible over West Seattle. There are instances of this happening as early as July 2022.

Oregon

For a state south of Washington, Oregon has surprisingly high odds of seeing the northern lights. This is perhaps because the lights are supposed to cast a wider net this time around.

Portland’s located in a prime location for a faint viewing with 11% geographic odds. But due to the luminescence and lighting in the neighborhoods and suburbs of Portland, the chances of seeing the northern lights in this city are lower than in the rural areas closer to Salem.

Alaska

Alaska is technically in the Pacific Northwest but is so far removed from the rest of the PNW that the odds of viewing the northern lights there are much higher. In fact, the odds of seeing the northern lights in Alaska are 100% across any given year. However, Fairbanks has lower odds because of city lighting, and Alpine has the highest odds because of geographical position.

What You Should Know Before Attempting to See the Northern Lights

Before you try to see the northern lights in the Pacific Northwest, you need to know a few things that will help you avoid disappointment and inconvenience. Managing expectations and proper preparations are essential. Aside from that, you need to know the following:

Summertime vs. Winter Lights

Northern lights are typically evident during the winter. These result from regular solar activity, from which photons hit the topmost part of the Earth’s atmosphere and excite the nitrogen and oxygen in it, producing the green lights as a consequence.

Summertime northern lights are an exceptional phenomenon that occurs during a solar storm. These storms produce more intense photon bursts that hit the Earth’s atmosphere harder. The northern lights that emerge from this activity are intense enough to be seen despite city lights and short nights.

Wintertime northern lights are visible in Alaska during December and January. Summertime solar storm-induced northern lights can also be visible in Portland and Seattle, but only if the solar storm is intense enough.

Backyard Gazing vs. Organized Trips

Organized aurora hunting trips are best taken in Alaska or Canada because you won’t waste any effort, energy, or money, on travel. You will see the northern lights there.

Washington and Oregon aren’t good places to take northern lights trips to because the intensity of aurora borealis is unpredictable, even during a solar storm. They are good states to attempt backyard gazing.

Short trips to a spot with clear skies or a high enough altitude can positively affect your psyche. But don’t visit Oregon or Washington from another state with the sole hope of coming across the northern lights.

Final Thoughts

Northern lights are the easiest to see in Alaska and the hardest to see in Southern Oregon. Aside from that, you should check your local forecast to see if the lights will be visible in your state whenever there is a solar storm.

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