For more than three centuries, the northern lights Maine sees several times a year have been drawing emotional responses.
This elusive unicorn in the sky isn’t easy to plan a trip around, but a perfect coincidence is coming up for a celestial showcase, the likes of which have never been documented before. This time, Maine will be center stage.
My first encounter with Maine’s northern lights started on a rather uneventful day. As a journalist, I’m tapped into social feeds from every organization — from NASA to the local newspapers. Twitter flooded me with “epic solar activity” potential.
At first, I scoffed. Was it worth trekking through April’s muddy roads and trails to see this sensation? The fact that my gut instinct already took me to my truck suggested it was.
Two hours later, my beloved golden retrievers and I were spread out at a nearby land trust, soaking under a rainbow of magnetic forces dancing above. It looked a little something like this.
There’s a lot of information out there about the best time to see the northern lights in Maine and how to optimize the experience. I’m also excited to share some skills I learned about photographing the northern lights.
We’re going to set the record straight so that you can get a better shot at seeing the northern lights Maine hosts in its dark skies.
What Are the Northern Lights?
The sun emits more than just heat and sunlight toward Earth. Inside the sun is a nuclear fusion equaling 10 billion hydrogen bombs igniting every second. Essentially, the sun is inwardly trying to blow itself apart. Outwardly, gravity is keeping it together.
During this solar balancing act, high-energy particles are released, which is called solar wind. The sun spits this solar wind in all directions, including toward Earth where they interact with our magnetosphere.
As these charged particles collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere, they excite them, causing the atoms to release energy in the form of light. This is what creates the beautiful phenomenon known as the northern lights.
The scientific name for the northern lights is the aurora borealis. Both words have Greek and Latin roots. Aurora means “dawn” or “morning light.” Borealis means “northern,” thus northern lights.
You can use northern lights and aurora borealis interchangeably, but some references are simply “aurora” — as in “I want to see the aurora.”
The solar wind is drawn to the magnetic poles of Earth — the North Pole and South Pole. When this phenomenon happens near the South Pole, it’s called the southern lights or aurora australis.
What Makes the Northern Lights Appear in Maine?
Several factors influence the potential of seeing the northern lights in Maine.
Strong geomagnetic storms, caused by disturbances in the Earth’s magnetosphere, increase the chances of seeing the northern lights at lower latitudes. These storms are measured through the Kp Index.
The solar wind produced by the sun can be forecast to a degree by the number of sunspots. When scientists see increased activity in solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun, the potential rises.
While Maine feels very “north” to most of us in the continental United States, it’s still 2,600 miles from the North Pole. The solar activity and geomagnetic activity need to be robust to reach Maine. It’s just more likely in Maine than in more southern states, like Kentucky.
In addition to these factors, Maine has the benefit of having some of the darkest night skies east of the Mississippi. Even less dynamic northern light sightings are possible because there’s no light pollution getting in the way.
The First Northern Lights in Maine & New England
A full century before Maine became a state, the land was part of the Massachusetts Bay Province. Almost 60 years before America would even declare independence, the New World was thought to be headed for the apocalypse.
“The brightness, bloodiness, and the fieriness of the colors, together with the swiftless of the motions, increase insomuch as we could hardly trace them with our own eyes., til at length almost the whole heavens appeared as if they were set on aflame; which wrought and glimmered, with flashed in a most dreadful and indescribable manner….
… And we began to think whether the Son of God was next to make his glorious and terrible appearance, or the conflagration of the world was now begun.”“The Early History of New England: Illustrated by Numerous Interesting Incidents” by Henry White
Dec. 17, 1719, marked the first documented sighting and writings of the northern lights, and it’s a good thing we’ve been able to learn a lot more about this celestial wonder.
In 1919, artist Howard Butler was painting the Bald Head Cliff of Ogunquit Maine by moonlight when the aurora dominated the night sky. He created two paintings of the spectacle that now are housed in Princeton’s Art Museum and the American Museum of Natural History.
“I had just finished my sketch of the cliff when this wonderful display suddenly appeared, flooding the heavens with light. Vertical shafts soon rose near the horizon in almost every direction and reached to the zenith, where they united in complicated weaving… Arches appeared from which additional shafts ascended. The colors varied from pale green to rose. The intense illumination lasted for about 20 minutes”Artist Howard Butler, 1856-1934, upon seeing the northern lights in 1919
When Is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights in Maine?
Different sources will have different answers for this, but before you start packing for a mid-winter trip to the North Woods of Maine, let’s talk about why winter months are said to be the best time.
First, there’s the fact that more darkness happens in the winter. With extended night skies comes a greater chance of seeing solar activity.
Then, there’s the fact that the Earth’s axis is tilted in winter. That just creates a more suitable playing field for the magnetosphere to interact with the solar wind.
The third factor doesn’t always make Maine a prime viewing destination because we have to rely on weather patterns. To see the aurora, you need to have clear skies. Maine’s highest months for cloud cover are November through January.
NOTE: For prime northern lights Maine viewing, you need to pay attention to the local weather forecast just as much as the space weather forecast.
All that said, the potential to see the northern lights in Maine runs throughout the year, with increased potential in winter. September and October have the clearest skies on average in Maine.
Can the Aurora Borealis Be Predicted in Maine?
To an extent, yes, but not in a way that makes planning travel easy. The Space Weather Prediction Center is always monitoring solar activity. It’s important to know that it takes three days from the time particles leave the sun to arrive at Earth. That means the best heads-up for a particular region is three days out.
The SPWC also gives a 30-minute forecast. If you don’t want to get caught up on all the scientific explanations on the page, just look for the neon green halo. That shows where the northern lights are most likely to be.
AURORA FORECAST: The Aurora Borealis Forecast & Alerts app is available to notify you when activity is expected instead of always having to check the SPWC website or social media pages.
Tracking the Solar Maximum in Maine
There’s a long-term forecast involving solar activity to pinpoint when the northern lights will happen, but it can let us know when the sun is more like to spit solar winds our way.
We know that the sun has an 11-year cycle when it flips polarity. The height of this activity is known as the solar maximum. On the flip side, the maximum is bookended by two periods of solar minimum. In 2019, we entered the solar maximum period for solar cycle 25, with the height expected to be in 2024 or 2025.
Original forecasts called for this solar cycle to be a below-average cycle. The sun had different plans. All evidence shows that the sun is much more agitated than at the solar maximum of previous cycles. If you really want to dig into the science and data behind that, here’s a great publication.
What we do know now is that the sun is overachieving expectations at a time the activity will be the most intense. This means that, during the 2020s, there are higher chances of seeing the northern lights in places like Maine more so than in the last solar cycle.
Best Places for Northern Lights Maine Gazing
Finding dark night skies in Maine isn’t too hard, but you do have some prime spots to target when hunting the aurora.
Since the geomagnetic storm happens closer to the North Pole, going as far north as possible is beneficial. Luckily, Maine has the double bonus of Aroostook County being the northernmost county in Maine and having some of the darkest skies in the country.
October and April are the best months to see the night sky in “The County,” but the northern lights won’t happen without space weather factors.
Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument is a certified International Dark Sky Sanctuary, surrounded by nearly 90,000 acres of powerless property. Nearby Baxter State Park is another popular stargazing site. Some people prefer to enjoy the night skies on the banks of Moosehead Lake or out on the water.
Acadia National Park is known for its night skies as well, even though its latitude is two degrees lower than Aroostook County. The Rangeley Lakes Region is also accustomed to having incredible Milky Way views.
Seeing the Aurora With Eyes vs. a Camera Lens
The dancing lights of the aurora can be impressive, but it’s your trusty camera that might get some of the best shots. In fact, I was convinced the first 30 minutes I saw in the darkness — hearing nothing but the panting of my dog — that this show was a bust.
As I grabbed my camera (an iPhone 13 Pro Max), I went to delete the timelapse I had running to save storage space. Lo and behold, there it was on the horizon, a blend of purple and green. I almost got whiplash, pivoting my head from the camera view to the sky, wondering why my eyes were failing me.
Through a weak mobile phone signal, I got some immediate understanding.
“Humans use two different kinds of cells in their eyes to sense light. Cone cells, concentrated in the fovea in the central area of vision, are high resolution and detect color in bright light. These are the main cells we use for vision in the daytime.
Rod cells, concentrated in the periphery around the outside of the fovea, can detect much fainter light at night, but only see in black and white and shades of gray.
[Aurora] only appear to us in shades of gray because the light is too faint to be sensed by our color-detecting cone cells.”Jerry Lodriguss, Astropix
Since the human eye has limitations in receiving and interpreting light, we can use the expandable light access of our camera lenses to get a better view.
What Is the Best Way to Photograph the Maine Northern Lights?
You don’t need to be a photography expert to get photos of the aurora, but it will help if you know some basic tricks of the trade.
Of course, you need to start with a dark sky and no light pollution around. A camera will pick up more light from the aurora but also more light from light pollution sources. You always need the camera to be stable, so grab a tripod or use a stable surface to prop it up. Don’t hold the camera in your hand.
Advanced smartphones have a night mode (iPhone) or night sight (Google Pixel) setting. Some models automatically adjust to this when you’re using them at night. This is a good starting point, but you can make it better.
Exposure & ISO Settings
By adjusting the exposure, you’re increasing the potential for the camera to take in more light. Start with exposure times of a few seconds and increase gradually. Adjust the ISO to a higher value (e.g., ISO 800-1600) to enhance the camera’s sensitivity to light.
High Dynamic Range
If your camera has an HDR setting, you should know the pros and cons of using it for the aurora.
The setting works best to capture a big difference between bright and dark areas. It takes a series of photos at different exposures and combines them to create a single, more detailed photo between the contrasts.
HDR works great if the northern lights are super stellar and you’re in a very dark area. If you’re playing around with long exposure shots or want to see more movement in the display, keep HDR off.
If you’re willing to experiment with a professional camera or want a better image than a smartphone can provide, here are some tips.
- Switch your camera to manual mode to have full control over the settings. This allows you to make adjustments based on the lighting conditions.
- Use a wide-angle lens with a low aperture value (f/2.8 or lower) to get more of the sky in view and optimize light gathering.
- Set the focus to “infinity” since the northern lights are about 60 miles from the surface of the Earth. You’ll get a more focused shot.
- Start with an ISO setting between 800 and 1600, erring on the higher side if the aurora is faint.
If you plan on post-producing your images or video, shoot in raw mode for more flexibility. Apps like Lightroom will adjust and magnify the colors.
Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Solar Maximum & Solar Eclipse of 2024
The solar maximum could be peaking around the time of the 2024 total solar eclipse. The rare timing of these two solar sensations could be an even more dynamic eclipse viewing than America saw in 2017.
What’s more beneficial for Maine is that the 2024 eclipse’s path of totality — which is total darkness — sweeps over Maine’s lakes, mountains, highlands, and northern woods.
The increased solar activity could make the solar eclipse more dynamic with an amplified display of the sun’s corona. Should a solar flare emit during the eclipse process, it could give another dynamic element to the eclipse unveiling. Those watching with solar glasses could have a better chance of seeing sunspots before the totality occurs.
Popular Maine locations — such as Presque Isle, Houlton, Caribou, and Rangeley Lakes, along with Baxter State Park and Katahdin Woods & Waters — will be in the path of totality. And, this is the last time Maine will get a total solar eclipse until 2079.
Is Visiting Maine for the Northern Lights Worth It?
With the added benefit of a total solar eclipse and solar wind in April 2024, there’s one of the best chances in history to see the northern lights and eclipse on the same trip.
If you have the flexibility to take a trip on three days’ notice when the forecast comes out, you’ll increase the possibility. While northern lights are never guaranteed, you will still have one of the best seats in America for beautiful night sky viewing with minimal to no light pollution.