Todd Salat, a professional Alaska-based photographer who has been chasing the northern lights for 16 years, said he has seen some of the most powerful auroras of his career this winter, and has taken some of his best photographs, too.
“The thing just goes crazy and starts ripping across the sky, then all of a sudden you can’t believe what you’re seeing – ripples of light going from one horizon to the other in a matter of, you know, five or 10 seconds,” Salat explained. “(It’s) just incredible. It makes you feel small because it’s big. It’s global.”
But Salat – and others who observe the aurora on a regular basis – aren’t quite sure the predictions of increased activity will hold true based upon what they’ve seen so far this season.
Mark Conde, a professor of physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, expects that recent solar activity indicates that auroras may not be as active this March as some have anticipated.
“The current solar cycle is proving to be far less active than previous ones by quite a wide margin,” Conde said. “I would expect the peak of the current cycle – if it follows the current trend we have now – it’s probably going to only be about half as active as it was in 1958.”
Despite Conde’s expectations, Fairbanks still expects to be inundated with tourists, especially from Japan. Japanese tourists have been traveling to see the lights for years, but the number of them traveling to the United States has risen significantly since Japan Airlines began chartering flights directly to Alaska almost a decade ago. The airline chartered 15 jets from cities throughout Japan to fly to Fairbanks this winter.
Shigeo Mori, who does Japanese marketing for Chena Hot Springs, explained that the Japanese fascination with northern lights stems from a philosophy that contemplates both sides of nature: its destructive power as well as its natural beauty.
“It’s more than a phenomenon for the Japanese people,” Mori says. “It’s tradition, it’s history.”