Shedding some light on an aurora season like no other

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Northern lights over Chena Lake.
Northern lights over Chena Lake. Photo Credit: Andy Witteman/Explore Fairbanks
Renee Brincks
Renee Brincks

Aug. 21 marked the start of Alaska's aurora season, when the northern lights are most visible in the state, and Fairbanks operators are gearing up to welcome guests with Covid-19 protocols in place.

An informal Explore Fairbanks survey conducted in mid-August found that aurora tour companies are moving forward with winter season plans while also implementing safety measures related to the pandemic.

The Northern Alaska Tour Co., for example, requires pretravel health surveys, temperature checks and mask use within its terminal. The outfitter has also suspended seat rotation on its aurora-viewing tours, restricting guests from sitting in various seats for different views of the lights.

Borealis Basecamp offers multinight aurora-viewing packages at its location north of Fairbanks. Travelers booking one of the property's fiberglass domes this winter will find private shuttle options along with contactless check-in and room service.

A Taste of Alaska Lodge has expanded its cancellation policy to allow for Covid-related cancellations. Meanwhile, the property's spinoff facility, Aurora Pointe, is accepting reservations for its lights-viewing experiences from guests not staying at the lodge. Those packages include hot beverages, free WiFi and a guide/naturalist who discusses the lights.

Across Alaska, destinations are following health mandates implemented at the state and federal levels.

The state updated its requirements for incoming visitors on Aug. 11. Current guidelines require out-of-state travelers to document negative Covid-19 test results obtained within 72 hours of their departure for Alaska, to document the completion of a test taken within 72 hours of the departure and quarantine while waiting for those results or to purchase a $250 test upon arrival in the state and quarantine while waiting for the results.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services website shares updated testing requirements and resources.

Out-of-state travelers and Alaska residents can plan light-viewing adventures on the Explore Fairbanks Aurora Tracker site, which connects users to real-time weather information and three-day northern lights forecasts for six Fairbanks-area locations. The tool draws on data from three sources, including the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute.

Individuals can also watch the lights at home, via the Explore Fairbanks webcam on the site that streams live aurora footage.

Thanks to low precipitation levels and a remote inland setting, Fairbanks often has clear night skies ideal for northern lights viewing. The city's location under the auroral oval, a ring-shaped northern region with concentrated aurora borealis activity, contributes to its popularity as a viewing destination.

Travelers who actively look for late-evening aurora displays for three nights boost their chance of seeing the lights to more than 90%, according to Explore Fairbanks estimates. When skies are clear and dark enough, viewers might catch rays of white, teal and purple for as many as four out of five nights on average.

Fairbanks' aurora season continues through April 21.

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