There is a heart-palpitating moment when you first see the colors of the Northern Lights. It takes some luck and lots of patience. After hours of staring at a dark sky, bundled up in enough layers to keep your fingers and toes from frosting over, they show up like a miracle It’s a show so magical it seems as if some greater force is trying to speak to you through pyrotechnics.

Seeing the aurora borealis is an unforgettable in-person experience, but it’s also one of the easiest to have from the comforts of your home. The lights are impervious to the Covid-19 coronavirus, as are the live webcams set up in Alaska’s permafrost interior.

The timing for an armchair trip is particularly favorable. In Fairbanks, Alaska, tourism officials market a northern lights season from Aug. 21 to Apr. 21, when they shine brightest. Prime viewing is in early fall, late winter, and early spring—as in: right now.

A virtual trip to see the lights is possible, thanks to enterprising scientists and locals, who are figuring out how to share the lights with visitors, even if they can’t fly in.

Fairbanks-based power line operator Troy Birdsall, for instance, replicates the experience with a home-built aurora webcam and a live-streaming server. The $20 annual subscription price, he says, is just to cover the costs for his equipment. Ronn Murray, a photography tour operator based in the Goldsteam Valley near Fairbanks, does something similar; his wide-view, high-quality DSLR camera is hooked up to a laptop setup that refreshes every 45 seconds, streaming to a site funded by donations. And the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks operates a webcam that offers a full look at the sky overhead, updating every 5 seconds from 2:30 a.m. to 11:11 a.m. East Coast time.

For Birdsall, sharing the lights is personal. “Aurora viewing, photography, and the website were a big part of my life when I was growing up,” he says. He started taking portraits of aurora visitors as a teen, in 1998, and he launched the webcam with his late father in 2003. Now, with enough public interest sprouting to fund the site’s growth, he says it’s a labor of love that’s worth the investment. 

How It Stacks Up
My first time seeing the lights took place up above the Arctic Circle, near the town of Wiseman (population: 11). The -50F temperatures were so unforgiving they made your eyeballs ache. There was one place to warm up: in an old, heated gold miner’s cabin whose owner regaled a dozen visitors with stories about life off the grid and hunting for dinner meat.

Outside, hired spotters huddled around a double-barrel stove, focusing their eyes on the dark, clear sky. You never know when the aurora borealis will appear.

It was after midnight when the cabin door finally swung open with word of a sighting. Everyone hustled out energetically, grabbing cameras and tripods. Those without heavy equipment whipped out phones loaded with special northern lights photo apps.

That’s when we saw them: brightly colored green ribbons swirling across the horizon as particles of dust from the sun (known as solar wind) collided with the Earth’s atmosphere. I had to remind myself to breathe as I stood gaping.

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