Aurora borealis in the northern Maine skies could be big draw for tourists

Northern Maine's skies can produce some amazing light shows, like these northern lights over New Sweden. Amateur photographer Matt Grandy used a 20-second exposure to capture the reds and greens of these lights on a fall night from his back yard.
Courtesy of Matt Grandy
Northern Maine's skies can produce some amazing light shows, like these northern lights over New Sweden. Amateur photographer Matt Grandy used a 20-second exposure to capture the reds and greens of these lights on a fall night from his back yard.
Posted May 11, 2013, at 5:15 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — From the first time humans looked up in wonder at the aurora borealis — or “northern lights” — those flickering, dancing rays of light and color have captivated and inspired storytellers, artists and scientists.

Spring is prime aurora viewing time and the Maine Office of Tourism has included scanning Aroostook County’s nighttime skies for these cosmic lights shows among its “New and Unique” travel opportunities in Maine.

“This spring is expected to be a better than average time to view the colorful lights of aurora borealis in Maine,” the tourism office said in a released statement. “The solar cycle of storm activity on the sun is at its peak, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center.”

Centuries ago the appearance of northern lights was attributed to everything from the spirits of the newly deceased passing into the next world to the gods playing a sort of cosmic soccer game in the sky.

Scientists know a bit more today about the mechanics of northern lights, but that in no way detracts from their beauty or power, according to Joseph Kunches, space weather forecaster with the National Weather Service out of Boulder, Colo.

Today’s sky-watchers credit electrons produced by energy from the sun coming into contact with neutral atoms closer to earth which, in turn, “gets those atoms excited and emits colors in waves or curtains,” Kunches said.

“The bad news is as of right now we are not expecting much in the way of solar activity for the coming weekend,” Kunches said on Friday. “The good news is there is an active region on the sun just making an appearance [and] a week from now things could line up for some good activity.”

In northern Maine, the northern lights are most often in shades of green, though on nights of heavy activity, they dance between greens and reds.

It was on such a night that New Sweden resident and amateur photographer Matt Grandy set up his camera and tripod to capture some stunning images in the sky over his backyard.

“I can’t explain it,” Grandy said. “But they are absolutely mesmerizing.”

It’s a feeling he’s had about the natural phenomena ever since his days as a college radio station disc jockey in the late 1970s at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

“When I worked at the radio station I’d come home around midnight or 12:30, put my record collection away, put on a parka and go lay in the snow and watch the northern lights,” he said. “I’d stay there until the sun came up.”

That’s a feeling those in the northern Maine tourism business want to share.

“It’s such a unique opportunity,” Leslie Jackson, regional tourism director with the Northern Maine Development Commission, said. “The skies and landscape [in Aroostook County] give us that opportunity for people to enjoy the northern lights.”

Given the County’s location in the extreme northeast, Jackson said this is one of the few places in the continental United States where the lights may be seen year round.

Add into that the fact it is fairly easy to leave behind well-lit areas and find some wide open spaces, and the area is custom-made for prime aurora viewing, Jackson said.

“This really is an ideal destination for people to come view northern lights,” she said. “It is hard to plan ahead [but] there are websites to access to detect the next solar bursts.”

The best way to view the lights, Jackson said, is to simply go for a drive and park in a dark spot.

“We are trying to encourage people that live the hustle-and-bustle lifestyle in the cities to come up and take time to enjoy things like the northern lights,” she said. “They are just such awe-inspiring visions.”

Stemming from spiritual or scientific sources, those visions can’t help but touch the human soul, as far as Kunches is concerned.

“It’s just beautiful,” he said. “The colors are not just like a can of paint that got poured on the floor — they move around, shimmer and twinkle [and] cause people to wonder what is going on? What stimulated the upper atmosphere to do that? It’s something you don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate.”

Information on Aroostook County’s northern lights is available at http://www.visitaroostook.com/things_to_do/family_attractions/the_solar_system_outer_space/aurora_borealis_and_wide_open_skies/

Up-to-date information on solar activity can be found on the websites http://helios.swpc.noaa.gov/ovation/ and http://www.spaceweather.com/

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