The Northern Lights are a rare sight to behold. Illuminating the sky with bright pillars and pulsing spirals, the natural phenomenon occurs when solar matter enters the atmosphere. Nature’s light show had been hard to catch this year, until sky watchers caught a glimpse Sunday night into Monday morning this week.
“Since I moved to Duluth, as long as the Northern Lights were out, I could see them,” says Matthew Moses, of Duluth. After a long dry spell, aurora danced across Minnesota on Sunday. The brilliant display wowed those in northern Minnesota especially, although it was visible throughout the state.
Moses has photographed all manner of objects in the night sky, including meteor showers, comets, and the Milky Way. Although he runs his photography business, Moses Images, during the day, he is also captivated by a clear view at night — especially a view of the Northern Lights.
“With a lifelong interest in the stars and the night sky, I was experimenting with some different types of shots,” says Moses, who’s been shooting digital since 2004. “I just kind of gravitated to the Northern Lights because of the beauty of it.”
Moses monitors space-weather reports to decide what he’ll photograph in the night sky, including forecasts for possible Aurora Borealis activity.
“It’s black magic,” says Moses. “It’s like weather forecasting; it’s just a guess in mid-air sometimes.”
To get a better sense of when the Northern Lights might be visible, Moses joined the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters.
With more than 11,000 members, the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters is a group of people who team up to track the Northern Lights in the Great Lakes region. After the Facebook group was founded in Minnesota in 2013, photographers and other enthusiasts joined from nearly every corner of the U.S. and several other countries as well.
“The Northern Lights are so elusive,” says Megan Sugden, an administrator for GLAH.
On the discussion board, members debate forecasts, cloud cover, and aurora activity – virtually anything related to the Northern Lights. When the lights appear, people throughout the region post to the page with live reports of what they’re seeing.
“It’s a huge group, but the people that do post are very close-knit,” says Sugden. “You’re just all in it together.”
Sugden resides in the northwestern-most region of Minnesota, where the skies are dark and the northern horizon boasts an unobstructed view. If the Northern Lights are out, all she has to do is step onto her front porch to get a glimpse.
Sugden has worked as a photographer for about 10 years, but she created Kittson County Skies last summer, when the Aurora display June 22-23 wowed sky watchers across the Great Lakes region.
“That show was completely different,” says Sugden. “I’d seen the Northern Lights before, but I had never actually seen them like that.”
In addition to alerting members to powerful displays, Moses says the group also helps to educate people about their chances of catching a show. Through his workshops on night-sky photography, he has helped many people see the Northern Lights for the first time.
“In the cities and suburbs, it’s a lot harder to see very much,” says Moses. “It really helps to be in darker areas, focusing on the stars and the night. Being outside of the urban glow you’re able to see things more easily.” One of the most popular aspects of the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters is the feeling members share when they finally catch a good display. Many members agree that the Northern Lights are unlike anything they have ever seen, and the experience of standing beneath them is transformative.
“For me, I get refreshed and re-energized by being outside and enjoying the night sky,” says Moses. “To me, they are almost spiritual. When I see the Northern Lights, I re-energize and reconnect, and feel more grounded.”
[Editor's note: Since writing this story, author Melissa F. Kaelin has become an administrator of the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters Facebook Group.]