You don’t have to go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights (though it helps). They can sometimes be visible in Door County, Wisconsin. Being far enough south makes their appearance rare, but a few times per year they can make an appearance. I am often asked how I know when Northern Lights might be seen. The answer is that it happens from time to time, a few times per year for a good showing. Northern lights are impossible to predict and Aurora chasers rarely get more than a few hours notice for when the lights might be visible.
The other question I get often is how do I know when they will be out? I use a few different Northern Lights tracking apps for this. They all do pretty much the same thing but I check them all because they present the information differently. The nice thing about all these apps is that you can set them up to send you an alert when the chances of seeing northern lights is good.
What To Look For When Checking Northern Lights Tracking Apps
Whether or not they can be seen depends on a few variables such as solar winds, cloud cover / weather, and air conditions. Theere are two metrics that I pay the most attention to. The first, and arguably the most important one, is the strength of any particular aurora activity. Aurora activity is measured on a Kp scale ranging from 0-9. At a minimum, it helps greatly for the Kp level needs to be at 5+ for lights to be seen on the horizon of lower latitude areas (such as areas in the continental US). And the higher the Kp level is, better the possibility for a Northern Lights appearance and a good show.
The other number to track is Bz. This is number represents how strong the solar winds are coupling with the earth. You want to watch for when this number goes negative. The more negative this number shows, the better chance there is of seeing aurora.
Now on to the northern lights tracking apps that I use. Some of these apps are paid apps. There might be a free version available for some of these but I’m the type of person who doesn’t have a problem supporting app developers who make apps I use often. Plus, you get extra features with paid apps, including the option for push notifications. Push notifications are really nice because I don’t have to check apps regularly, and they will tell me when the Kp level gets high.
These apps also track other variables that affect Northern Lights viewing. I am admittedly not an expert in many of those other variables. But I’ve had good luck with keeping an eye on the Kp and Bz numbers.
I understand that I am going to sound like a spokesperson for these apps, but I was not asked to nor paid to include any of these apps in this post. I only talk about them because I use them.
My Favorite Northern Lights Tracking Apps
There are many northern lights tracking apps out ther, but these are the three that I found to be very helpful in my own search for aurora photos.
This is always the first of the northern lights tracking apps that I check. Aurora Alerts has all the information as the previous two apps so I won’t go into details about those. I like the Short Forecast Page quite a bit. Most notably, it tells you your percentage chance of seeing the Northern Lights both overhead and on the horizon. This is helpful for Door County Northern Lights viewing because we almost always only see them on the horizon.
The long forecast page is also good for viewing predicted levels in the hours ahead. It’s not terribly accurate in real-world use, but it gives a good indication anyway.
This is my favorite app for looking at all the current conditions of solar activity.
I like this Northern Lights tracking app because it has the best map. The map, and the overall UI, just seems more polished than other apps I’ve used.
The front page of the app shows the Kp index right now and your percentage chance of seeing them where you are. Then there is an Aurora Map which is extremely useful. It shows an aurora overlay on the map and you can plainly see if aurora activity is near you.
The forecasts tab will show you your viewing probability over the next half hour, cloud coverage percentage, Kp probability predictions for the next hour, and long-term maximum Kp forecasts.
This is one of the northern lights tracking apps that I used to check more, but I don’t often use it anymore. The first two northern lights tracking apps have everything you need. But this Northern Lights tracking app has all the information you will need to track solar activity. The front page of the app will show you a map with aurora activity right at the top, probabilities for geopmagnetic activity, and Auroral predictions.
This is not a Northern Lights tracking app, obviously, but it is probably one of the most helpful ways to be notified of aurora activity. The page Aurora Alerts by Soft Serve News does a great job letting the world know about upcoming solar storms. When I see a post from them pop up on my feed, I know to pay closer attention to the Kp level. To help me see their posts I enabled notifications whenever they post.
There are other pages and groups dedicated to Northern Lights hunting so I recommend doing a search for those. Great Lakes Aurora Hunters Alerts is a good page to follow for Great Lakes based alerts.
Don’t Forget Weather Apps!
In addition to seeing if the northern lights are even out, you also need to make sure you can even see the sky. Clouds can be a real bummer! In addition to the traditional weather apps such as The Weather Channel, Accuweather, etc., I like to use this app to see current cloud conditions.
Astrospheric is the best app that I have seen for night sky viewing conditions. There is a great deal of information, but what I am mostly concerned with is cloud cover. Traditional weather apps aren’t the best for viewing cloud cover conditions. In some conditions, maps can be very difficult to ascertain where the clouds are and are not, and seeing the percentage of cloud cover is often buried, difficult to find, or nonexistant.
That’s where Astrospheric comes in. You get a clear map that shows cloud cover, which can be really helpful if you are trying to find the best spot for viewing the sky. Additionally, you get all the information I mentioned above including cloud cover percentage and loads of other stuff that I won’t get in to here. Just check it out!
Happy Northern Lights Hunting!
Using these Northern Lights tracking apps will help you know when you have a chance to see the beautiful Aurora Borealis.
One more thing to note. The sun goes through an 11 year cycle where solar activity fluctuates in strength. Right now in 2018 we are pretty much at the low end on the solar activity cycle. That means solar storms strong enough to produce Northern Lights in Door County will be few and far between. However, in a few years the activity will be back at higher levels. When that time comes we should have more opportunities for viewing!
UPDATE: As I update this page in 2023, the solar activity seems to be close to peaking during it’s 11 year cycle. We have seen 3 very good aurora events this year as sighting become more common for the next couple of years.