Introduction of Northern lights san francisco

Also known as the aurora borealis, the dazzling northern lights are a natural phenomenon that occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with gaseous particles in Earth’s atmosphere. While the northern lights are most commonly seen in extremely northern latitudes like Alaska, Canada, Iceland, and Scandinavia, they occasionally make appearances much farther south during intense solar activity – even as far as San Francisco south.

Though a rare occurrence for Northern California, sightings of the aurora borealis in the San Francisco Bay Area generate excitement among locals, photographers, scientists, and skywatchers when the mystical lights dance across the night sky.

The northern lights are essentially a “solar storm” from the sun – when the sun ejects billions of tons of electrically charged particles, or solar winds, out into space. When these solar winds meet Earth’s magnetic field, they are channeled down into the upper atmosphere.

Here, the particles collide with gases like oxygen, nitrogen, and neon, “exciting” them and causing them to emit bursts of light. This interaction between the solar particles and gases causes the eerie, yet breathtaking, shifting curtains, streaks, and colorful glows that we see as the northern lights. They are visible in night skies in oval-shaped regions concentrated around the earth’s magnetic poles.

Though we can’t always predict when solar activity will create geomagnetic storms strong enough for the lights to be seen at lower latitudes, northern lights sightings as far south as San Francisco do happen occasionally, much to the delight of Bay Area residents.

What Causes the Northern Lights?

As mentioned, the northern lights are the result of solar winds from coronal mass ejections (CMEs) on the sun interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. When billions of electrically charged particles are funneled into the upper atmosphere by the magnetic field lines near the poles, they excite cold atmospheric gases, who then emit photons of light – causing the northern lights display. 

More specifically, when there is increased solar activity like solar flares and coronal mass ejections (essentially explosions on the sun’s surface), plasma comprised of protons and electrons is blasted out from the sun in a solar wind. Traveling at speeds of over one million miles per hour, these solar winds take about two to three days to reach Earth.

When they collide with gases in our upper atmosphere around 60 to 200 miles above Earth’s surface, energy is transferred to the gases which makes the electrons in them move faster. When the electrons return to normal, they emit photons in the form of visible light. This causes the haunting glows of green, pink, red, purple, blue and violet that illuminate polar night skies in shifting, shimmering curtains of light during a solar storm.

For the northern lights to be visible, not only do we need a strong eruption on the surface of the sun, but also clear skies and the right atmospheric and magnetic conditions here on Earth. During years of high solar activity within the 11-year solar cycle, northern lights displays can be more frequent and visible from much farther south than usual.

Optimal Conditions for Viewing the Northern Lights in San Francisco

San Francisco is actually positioned quite favorably for rare sightings of the northern lights, even though it is at a lower latitude than prime aurora-viewing areas. This is thanks to its proximity to the North Pole’s geomagnetic latitude lines. The city’s latitude is 37°46′N (similar to Athens, Greece) but its geomagnetic latitude is around 55°N – comparable to Helsinki, Finland which is directly under the auroral oval. This means that during periods of increased solar activity when the aurora extends farther from the poles, the lights can actually be visible over San Francisco.

For the best chance of witnessing this dazzling phenomenon from the Bay Area, optimal conditions include:

  • Clear, dark skies with no light pollution – light pollution from urban areas can obscure views of the northern lights, so areas like Ocean Beach that face the open ocean provide ideal viewing
  • Solar maximum cycles – these peak cycles occur approximately every 11 years when sunspot and solar flare activity is most intense
  • Long hours of darkness – longer winter nights give more opportunity to potentially view the lights versus short summer nights
  • Proximity to the northern geomagnetic pole – San Francisco’s higher geomagnetic latitude means the northern lights oval can expand farther south during solar storms
  • Low cloud cover and minimal fog – crystal clear conditions are best as cloud cover acts like a curtain, blocking views of the northern lights
  • Sharp Kp-index rise – the Kp-index measures geomagnetic activity, so sharp rises indicate optimal space weather conditions

While displays are rare and viewing the northern lights requires a perfect confluence of ideal conditions, San Francisco’s location combined with vigilant monitoring of space weather forecasts means sightings can sometimes occur during intense solar maximums.

Notable Sightings of the Northern Lights in San Francisco

While not an annual event in the Bay Area, there are a number of recorded instances where eagle-eyed observers were fortunate enough to witness the incredible light show of the aurora borealis dancing overhead in the San Francisco night sky:

  • 1858 – The first documented case of the northern lights being visible from San Francisco happened in 1858 during the strong solar maximum of Solar Cycle 10. Reports describe vibrant red and green hues illuminating the skies over the city.
  • 1921 – On the night of January 22, 1921 residents reported seeing strong northern lights displays lasting several hours, with some describing it as a glowing red arch crossing overhead.
  • 1958 – Widespread northern lights sightings were reported across Northern California in February 1958 during an extremely intense solar storm coinciding with the solar maximum of Solar Cycle 19. Ghostly green lights were visible for several nights as far south as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
  • March 1989 – Parts of Northern California were treated to a dazzling light show as an aurora borealis display stretched as far south as San Francisco and Sacramento. Heavens-gazers at Land’s End looked on as shimmering green lights dance across the horizon during this event.
  • October 2003 – Frequent northern lights sightings occurred throughout Northern California due to the intense solar maximum of Solar Cycle 23. Ghostly green auroras danced above San Francisco for several evenings in a row.
  • September 2017 – A giant solar flare created geomagnetic storm conditions, producing a northern lights display visible from San Francisco where observers saw wispy turquoise and red lights above the city.

During years where solar activity is at a high point, the chances increase for Bay Area skywatchers to catch a rare glimpse of the northern lights – though clear skies and optimal viewing conditions are also necessary align. Local northern lights enthusiasts closely monitor space weather forecasts for opportunities to spot the dazzling lights above San Francisco when brilliant auroral displays make their way south.

Best Locations to View the Northern Lights in San Francisco

When the northern lights do make a rare appearance over San Francisco, these are some of the best vantage points to watch the celestial light show:

  1. Ocean Beach – Stretching along the western edge of the city, Ocean Beach allows viewers to look out across the open Pacific Ocean unobstructed by light pollution. Face north for the best views of the northern lights.
  2. Land’s End – The north-facing cliffs of Land’s End provide sweeping views of the Golden Gate Strait, Marin Headlands and the Pacific Ocean – ideal for northern lights watching if activity is strong enough to be visible over San Francisco.
  3. Twin Peaks – The two prominent hills offer some of the highest elevation views in San Francisco. Views from the northern slope face away from the light pollution of downtown.
  • Mt Tamalpais – Located north of the city in Marin County, the summit of Mt. Tamalpais provides excellent northern exposure at over 2,500 feet elevation for spotting northern lights over San Francisco.
  • Mt. Diablo – This state park to the east of San Francisco has northerly views at over 3,800 feet elevation. Clear skies could provide opportunity to see the northern lights from the mountain summit above the Bay Area.
  • Marin Headlands – The open vistas and rolling hills facing San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean provide front row views of the northern skyline ideal for aurora borealis spotting.
  • Point Reyes – This Cape on the coast north of San Francisco has fantastic northern exposure with no artificial light sources. Whale watching spots like the lighthouse and Chimney Rock are perfect for viewing.

For best results, seek out locations with expansive northern views that limit light pollution. Higher elevation vantage points also help viewers look out across a broader horizon for possible auroral displays.

Photography Tips for Capturing the Northern Lights

For photographers lucky enough to view the celestial dance of the northern lights over San Francisco, low light photography skills and the right equipment can help capture breathtaking images of the phenomenon. Here are  below some tips for photographing the northern lights:

  1. Use a tripod – Long exposure shots require a steady camera, making a tripod essential.
  2. Use a wide, fast lens – A wide angle lens between 10-20mm f/2.8 or faster helps capture the expanse of the northern lights and lets in more light.
  3. Use manual settings – Switch your camera to manual mode and ISO between 800-3200 with shutter speeds of 5-30 seconds.
  4. Take multiple exposures – Take a series of shots at varying exposures/apertures to create options for blending later.
  5. Reduce noise – Use noise reduction tools and low ISO levels to keep image grain to a minimum.
  6. Capture foreground interest – Compose shots using landmarks, landscapes or architecture to create silhouette foreground interest.
  7. Experiment with composition – Play with vertical/horizontal orientation, foreground elements, lighting, and perspective.
  8. Focus manually – Autofocus won’t work in dark settings, so adjust focus just shy of infinity for optimal sharpness.

Patience is key for photographing this fleeting phenomenon. Don’t be afraid to continually adjust settings until you achieve the desired results! When the northern lights come out, be ready to turn San Francisco landmarks into the perfect foreground for capturing this natural wonder.

The Science Behind the Colors of the Northern Lights

The northern lights’ distinctive swirling veils of color are what make this phenomenon so mystical and beautiful. But what accounts for the various colors we see in the northern lights – and why do they change and shift as solar storms interact with Earth’s atmosphere?

Different elements at varying altitudes interacting with the solar wind are responsible for the colors of the aurora:

  • Red Auroras – This color is produced by high altitude oxygen emissions from approximately 200 miles above Earth. Red northern lights are typically seen on the outskirts of the main aurora.
  • Green Auroras – The most common color seen is the greenish glow from oxygen emissions between 60-150 miles in altitude – the most abundant gas in our atmosphere at these heights.
  • Blue/Violet Auroras – These cooler hues are caused by nitrogen gas colliding with electrons at approximately 60 miles high just above the mesosphere.

During a solar storm, variations in pressure and density of these gases cause the northern lights to shift and change color based on which altitudes the activity is occurring. Oxygen produces green and red, while nitrogen glows blue and violet. Watching for these changing colors can indicate what’s happening during a northern lights display. The most vibrant shows occur when there is activity across multiple altitudes and gases.

Cultural Significance and Legends About the Northern Lights

For cultures and civilizations in polar regions throughout history, the mysterious glowing lights had deep cultural significance and were woven into myths and lore. Here are some prominent examples:

  1. Northern Native American Tribes – Believed the northern lights were the ancestor spirits of animals dancing in the sky. When lights were red, they saw it as a sign of plentiful food.
  2. Scandinavian Folklore – Vikings saw the aurora as a sign the gods or their shields were watching over them. They feared it meant unrest in the world when lights were red.
  3. Ancient Greeks – Thought the auroras were flaming spears flung into the night sky by Ajax the Great fighting his enemies.
  4. Ancient Romans – Credited Aurora, the Roman goddess of sunrise, with creating the northern lights colors while flying across the sky.
  5. In Medieval times – Believed the northern lights were an ominous sign of coming plague, famine, war, and other misfortunes about to befall them.

Of course, today we have a scientific understanding of the northern lights and their effect on Earth. But these beliefs and mythologies continue to add to the mystique and allure of witnessing this celestial phenomenon firsthand. When the northern lights come out, it still feels like seeing this ancient dance between the sun and Earth that filled earlier observers with such awe and wonder.

Viewing the Northern Lights in Other Parts of California

While the San Francisco Bay Area occasionally gets treated to northern lights displays during intense solar activity, there are other regions of California with even better geographic positioning to view the aurora borealis. Prime northern lights watching spots in the state include:

  1. Shasta Region – With high elevations and clear northern views, mountains like Mount Shasta, Mount Eddy and the Trinity Alps provide prime aurora viewing from northern California.
  2. Modoc Plateau – This sparsely populated high desert area bordering Oregon offers little light pollution and wide open spaces perfect for northern lights watching.
  3. Eastern Sierra Nevada – The high peaks and ridgelines of the Sierras allow views deep into the northern horizon from vantage points like Mammoth Mountain, making the area a northern lights hotspot.
  4. Lassen Peak – At over 10,000 feet, the summit of Lassen Volcanic National Park is a stellar place for views of the northern lights over the volcanoes and lakes of the region.
  5. Lava Beds National Monument – The dark skies and lava rock formations of this park offer vivid night sky viewing conditions for catching the aurora borealis.

While sightings in San Francisco tend to occur during the most intense solar activity, these other regions of California have more consistently favorable latitudes and elevations for northern lights viewing throughout the solar cycle.

When is the Next Opportunity to See the Northern Lights in San Francisco?

By closely tracking solar activity cycles and space weather forecasts, we can make educated guesses on the chances of seeing the northern lights over the Bay Area at different points in the future:

  1. Solar Cycle 25 – This current 11-year solar cycle is predicted to peak between 2024-2026, meaning increased northern lights potential for Northern California.
  2. March 2026 – Early forecasts suggest solar storm activity could create ideal northern lights conditions around this time.
  3. September 2028 – The fall equinox during the Solar Cycle 25 maximum may also provide prime aurora borealis viewing based on modeling.
  4. 2033-2035 – The next solar maximum of Solar Cycle 26 could again produce geomagnetic storms strong enough for northern light sightings in the Bay Area.

Joining northern lights alert groups can help you receive real-time notifications when space weather forecasts suggest increased chances for aurora borealis displays reaching Northern California. Apps like AuroraNotify, SpaceWeatherLive and My Aurora Forecast & Alerts also provide alerts for northern lights potential in your area.

While we can’t guarantee witnessing this celestial wonder, San Francisco has proven over the decades to be well positioned for the occasional northern lights display. By understanding optimal conditions and monitoring forecasts closely, you have a fighting chance to see the aurora borealis dance overhead above San Francisco when the next dazzling solar storm heads our way.


What time of year is best for seeing the northern lights in San Francisco?

Late fall through early spring when skies are clearer and nights are longer.

Do the northern lights happen every year in San Francisco?

No, displays are infrequent and depend on intense solar geomagnetic storms.

Where can I find out about upcoming northern lights forecasts for San Francisco?

Check space weather websites and join northern lights watch groups on social media.

How far south can the northern lights be seen from San Francisco?

During very strong solar storms, the aurora borealis may be visible as far south as San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Is there a way to get northern lights alerts for San Francisco?

Yes, you can sign up for text or email alerts from northern lights forecasting services.

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