One of Nature's Most Spectacular Performances
One incredible benefit of Door County's remoteness and hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan shoreline is that there is no light pollution up here. There are no nearby metropolitan areas with big-city lights, so the stars, Milky Way, and constellations are brighter, and sometimes, if you're lucky, you can even spot the elusive Northern Lights.
What Are the Northern Lights?
Called the aurora borealis or “northern lights,” the eerie and enchanting ribbons of light in the night sky are a result of the collision of charged particles from the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field. They are magical to behold and are a rare sighting in the US.
In larger cities with light pollution, they are not visible, but in areas of the country where cities are distant, the lights can be spotted during times of high cosmic activity and when the sky is dark and cloudless.
In order to know whether you have a chance of seeing an aurora, you need to know the level of geomagnetic activity at the time you are viewing. There is a simple index called Kp, a number from 0 to 9, which is used to refer to geomagnetic activity for a 3-hour period. The higher the Kp index, the more likely that aurora is visible. For viewers in the Door County area to have a high likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights, the Kp index would need to be higher than 5 or 6. You can see the estimated Kp levels here.
What should I look for?
The aurora comes in several different shapes. Sometimes the forms are of many tall rays that look much like a curtain or folds of cloth. Earlier in the evening, these rays can form arcs that stretch from horizon to horizon.
Late in the evening, near midnight, the arcs often begin to twist and sway, just as if a wind were blowing on the curtains of light. Then in the early morning, the auroral forms can take on a more cloud-like appearance with patches blinking on and off repeatedly for hours, disappearing as the sun rises.
When should I watch for them?
The phenomenon can happen any time during the year. The night must be cloudless and ideally absent of a bright moon. The best areas to view from are ones with a clear view of the northern sky.
There are also dedicated smartphone apps and websites that can help you track the lights, including Facebook pages such as Great Lakes Aurora Hunters.
Where in Door County Can I see them?
Door County’s dark skies and low levels of light pollution, especially in the northernmost parts, offer great opportunities to see the aurora borealis. Rock Island State Park and Washington Island in general are two great spots for chasing the lights, but the most popular destination is Newport State Park.
In 2017, Newport State Park earned a dark-sky designation, meaning it is on an international list of sites with exceptionally clear views of the night sky due to low levels of light pollution.