John Pazmino
 NYSkies Astronomy Inc
 2003 May 25 initial
 2017 February 22 current

    Altho the northern lights, the aurora, is infrequent over New York 
City, it does appear often enough that you should be versed in its 
appearance and behavior. I deal here solely with the visual aspects of 
the aurora, leaving out the geophysics and theory. I also miss out 
radio and magnetic methods of observing the northern lights, but I do 
touch on photographing it. 
    New York is not considered a favored place for the aurora because 
it is far from the geomagnetic north pole, about 51 degrees north 
geomagnetic latitude, and its skies are not truly dark. They are 
slicked with luminous graffiti. Never the less the City experienced 
substantial aurorae roughly once a decade and minor ones every couple 
    The frequency of aurora tracks the overall solar activity. It is 
far less during sunspot minimum, yet showing up when unusual solar 
storms break out.
    The keys to a successful sighting of the northern lights from the 
City are preparation and lots of luck. 
    By the way, you know that 'aurora borealis' means 'northern dawn', 
if from nothing but blind rote. Do you know where this term came 
from? Galileo coined it first in 1619! 

Aurora oval
    When aurora are sparked on Earth by the influx of protons and 
electrons from the Sun, the lights concentrate around a rough circle 
centered on the geomagnetic north pole. The pole is displaced from the 
geographic pole in the general direction of New York. We are more 
likely to see the aurora than our geographic latitude, 41 degrees 
north, indicates. Banking off of the geomagnetic pole, we are at 51 
degrees north. 
    Compared to European and Asian sites of similar geographic 
latitude, New York is actually the more favored to experience the 
northern lights. On the other hand, the US Midwest is a tad closer to 
the geomagnetic pole and the its countryside has far darker skies. 
Aurorae are more common and easier to notice there than in the City. 
    Altho the aurora oval is the concentration of lights when they 
occur, the density of the lights varies widely around the oval. There 
may be a strong display at certain points of the oval and none at 
others. That's why we may miss an aurora when the oval is over the 
city when other places along it get a show. Or vice versa.
    The oval is the southern boundary for aurorae. While strongest 
along the circle, aurorae play within it. Hence, if the aurora oval is 
south of the City we may get a weaker, but still satisfying, display. 

Size of the oval
    The aurora oval varies in size according as the strength of the 
geomagnetic storm producing it. The greater the storm, the farther out 
from the geomagnetic pole is the oval. The storm strength is given by 
a figure of merit called the Kp (kay-pee) index, which is given in 
aurora predictions and alerts. 
    Kp is one of many parameters for monitoring the interaction of the 
Earth's magnetic field with the solar wind, but it's the simplest 
single measure of aurora prospects. 'Kp' is the German initials for  
'planetarische Kennziffer', 'planetary index' in English. It is a 
combined global measure of geomagnetic disturbance collected from a 
battery of geomagnetic stations in high north and south latitudes. 
    Each computes for 3-hour intervals thruout the day an index, K, 
for itself. If there were such a station near New York, it would be 
better to track its K index rather than go by the global one. But 
there isn't. 
    Along the City's longitude meridian the aurora oval lies at 
approximately the locations below.

  Kp  approximate location 
  --  --------------------
   5  St Lawrence River, Montreal QC
   6  southern Adirondacks, Albany NY
   7  smack over New York City, northern New Jersey, Long Island
   8  southern Chesapeakw Bay
   9  North Carolina 

Thus, a Kp greater than 6 gives New York a sporting chance of viewing 
the aurora. Because Kp is a quasilog number, it takes a massively 
severe disturbance to push it from 5 thru 9, making aurorae only an 
occasional apparition over the City. 
    The Kp index is one of the factors cited in aurora alerts and 
predictions. You can get these predictions by email, cell or pager 
signal, websites, or maillists. I assume here that you got or can get 
these bulletins. 

Tracking aurora activity 
    It is impossible at present to confidently forecast an aurora over 
a given location. The best is to stipulate the chances of getting an 
aurora based on various trends in geophysical parameters, such as the 
Kp index and size of the aurora oval. Even then, you may miss  a 
display because it fell on your location in daytime or ell on a remote 
    US NOAA maintains a 'Space weather prediction center' in Boulder, 
Colorado, to track geophysical parameters. It makes NO predictions or 
forecasts for aurorae. It does issue alerts when solar-terrestrial 
interaction heats up. It has a web 'Enthusiasts Dashboard' that 
displays twenty or so panels of data. These charts, maps, graphs track 
many items up thru the previous couple hours. The link is 


    Please know that a web can be rearranged at will without notice 
and this link may break. If so, try a search for 'NOAA' + 'enthusiasts 
dashboard'.  Clicking on a data panel enlarges it for easier reading, 
saving, printing. Clicking the large panel returns to the home page.    
Letterpress on other pages at NOAA explain the items but you still 
must apply your astronomy smarts to plan an aurora watch or answer to 
an alert. 
    It is wise to keep an eye on the sky when ever outdoors during a 
period of likely aurora, even if none is expected for your location. 
Make the deliberate task of learning the normal and usual sky glows 
from terrestrial sources. You really don't want to miss an aurora 
because you failed to distinguish it from an ordinary hotspot of 
luminous graffiti you should have known about. 

In the old days
    Modern forecasts for aurora are based on satellite monitoring of 
the Sun. The birds collect solar wind and radiation that never reaches 
the ground and is not modulated by the atmosphere. Satellites in high 
orbit or at a Lagrange point gather solar particles and radiation 
before Earth's magnetic field distorts them.
    The information is processed by several centers for geophysics and 
then sent out to the astronomy world within minutes or hours. 
    Before the space age, we relied on the casual but unknown 
correlation between sunspots and other visible photosphere events and 
the later eruption of aurorae. From experience we figured that from 
the appearance of a large sunspot it would take two to four days for 
the electrons and protons to reach Earth. 
    The prediction was iffy because we could not follow the solar flow 
on its way to Earth, We could not know if the flux was even aimed to 
Earth at all. There were many false alarms. No aurora showed up after 
we witnessed what we felt was a sure source for them. 
    We were with annoying frequency blindsided by aurorae for which we 
had no previous warning. There were no major sunspot groups or flares. 

International Geophysical Year
    In 1957-1958 for the first time ever, humankind mounted a 
coordinated all-points study of Earth and her interaction with the Sun 
and outer space. It ran for 18 months to bracket the sunspot maximum 
of 1957. Among the prime disciplines of the IGY was the northern -- 
and southern -- lights. 
    The space age didn't yet start at the start of the IGY. The first 
birds orbited by the Soviet Union and United States later were very 
crude and of short life. By rockets and balloons we did capture some 
of the solar particles and measured the fluctuations in the Earth's 
magnetic field. 
    IGY recruited home astronomers to monitor aurorae. It issued 
booklets and charts to aid in collecting data about the display in a 
consistent and uniform manner. I myself got started in astronomy 
largely thru participation in this, and other, IGY project,
    Our current paradigma of aurora theory, including the discovery of 
the aurora oval, derives directly from the IGY work. 

Season and hour 
    In New York the best season for aurora is from October thru March. 
These are the months of long nights, standard time, and somewhat more 
clearer darker skies. Note that these are terrestrial factors. An 
aurora can strike the City at any time of the year as governed by the 
jivings from the Sun. 
    The summer months, with brief nights and daylight savings time are 
the lousiest for aurora watching in the City. More over, the air is 
typicly laden with moisture and haze that scatter luminous graffiti 
and smother auroral light 
    The prime hours within a night is the four hours centered on local 
[standard time] midnight. However, aurora can start in twilight -- it 
could even be in progress at nightfall -- and can last for many hours 
right thru dawn. If you possibly can, check the sky repeatedly on a 
night of an alert at, say, half hour intervals. Once well past 
midnight with no aurora, you may safely go to bed. Aurorae almost 
never start after midnight. 
    You can have two aurora sites. One at or near your home for the 
initial checking. This can be a north-facing window or terrace. The 
other site, with more of the ideal parameters, is used when there is 
really strong chance of an aurora erupting soon. 

Observing site 
    I assume you are within the City. It is most unlikely you will 
travel to a remote darksky site for an aurora alert. The leadtime is 
almost always too short. Aggravating your state of mind is the 
elevated anxiety while traveling to the darksky sire with aurora 
playing over your car or bus. 
    Examine your normal starviewing site; it may or may not be 
adaptable for aurora watching. For sure, when ever you are at your 
starviewing site, take the moment every so often during an alert to 
scan the sky for aurora. At least, you are outdoors and engaged in 
astronomy, even if the very location is deficient for proper study of 
the northern lights. 
    The ideal site has an open sky to the north quadrant and zenith, 
shielding from nearby ground light, and personal safety. The latter is 
important because you may be at the site for an hour or more waiting 
for the aurora to hit and then remain on site for some hour or more 
watching the display. 
    The horizon from northwest thru northeast should be free of high 
skyline. Certainly the average skyline better be less than 20 degree 
altitude over this zone in order to see low-lying arcs and glows. 
    The north quadrant should have the least luminous graffiti, but 
you'll probably use the place of opportunity regardless of the 
distribution of luminous graffiti on the sky. Just know that the less 
there is, the better is the view of aurora. 
    Because you'll skip and dance around to take in the show over your 
head, watch out for ice, rocks, pipes, curbs, and other walking 
hazards of the night. Deliberately move several meters away from your 
telescope, car, chairs, ground cloths. 
    It helps if there are amenities to hand, like restrooms and 
shelter from wind. 
    Candidate aurora viewing stations are building rooftops, interior 
field or elevated hill of a park, and a north-facing shoreline. 

Sky conditions
    Like for other diffuse and faint celestial targets, an aurora from 
the City demands a actually clear night. Any noticeable haze or thin 
cloud, specially if lighted from ground sources, will cut down your 
chances of seeing the northern lights. On the other hand, aurora can 
be appreciated under the nominal clear night conditions of Manhattan, 
now in the first decade of the 21st century having transparency of 4th 
to 4-1/2 magnitude.
    During an aurora alert, don't be discouraged by a deficient sky. As 
long as it is not opaque and stars are discernible, do scan for 
northern lights. Take care that cloud and haze may accentuate luminous 
graffiti in an unfamiliar way. You could be misled to claim an aurora 
sighting. Such a night you normally pass up for ordinary stargazing. 
For a possible outbreak of northern lights you take what ever quality 
of night that's out there. 

Twilight and moonlight
    A northern lights display can begin in daylight and reveal itself 
at nightfall. As twilight fades you notice sections of the sky that 
aren't darkening normally. from New York the aurora, according to 
extant records, is in its north glow stage at nightfall. I have no 
record of a massive display in progress when the sky gets dark. 
    Depending on the level of the aurora alert, you may start your 
vigil in mid twilight. Otherwise, wait until full night after nautical 
twilight for the City.
    Moonlight will slaughter the weaker aurora, but you may have no  
choice but to tough it out during a watch at large Moon. Be careful of 
thin cloud lighted by the Moon; they can look like aurora patches. If 
feasible, confine your aurora hunting to small Moon, from a few days 
before to a few days after new Moon. Once the Moon nears the quarter 
phase, her light on top of the City's own night lighting, will raise 
the barrier against seeing the northern lights perhaps just too much.
    In more northern parts of the world a strong display can be 
discerned in full daylight. This never happened in New York! 

Winter clothing
    As for protection against weather, being that you'll be viewing 
mostly in the frostbite season, take the same cautions and advice as 
for regular starviewing. On the other hand, unlike for meteor 
watching, you'll be moving about and generating internal body warmth. 
This may let you get away with one less layer of clothing to improve 
dexterity and agility. 
    I note here, like for regular observing, you must protect the 
feet, head, and hands. There are the usual tricks of packing shoes 
with rubber slabs (cut up an old mouse pad) as insulation from the 
ground, wrapping a scarf under your hat, using flip-finger gloves. 
    When the wind picks up, do retreat into shelter as long as you can 
still observe the aurora or major sections of it. You may be too busy 
to think of drink or food, but it can't hurt to pack some goodies, 
just in case. Like for all observing, taking in substances that impair 
or deteriorate your senses is really no good. 

Terrestrial lights 
    You absolutely must be familiar with the normal and occasional 
insults on the sky from earthly sources of illumination. In New York 
there are many ways to fake an aurora by ordinary and not so ordinary 
outdoor lighting. This means that at your aurora station you should 
make note of these normal glows and patches and plot them on a skydome 
chart for future reference. 
    Bear in mind that the size and brightness of luminous graffiti 
varies with moisture and haze. On a very clean night it may be small 
and weak. On a humid hazy night it may swell and brighten. Be wisely 
about temporary illuminations from stadia, dance clubs, street fairs, 
store openings. They can cause glows and beams easily mistaken for 
    There are two really common mistaken aurorae, one peculiar to the 
winter months. First is searchlights. From afar they could mimic the 
rays or beams of northern lights! The giveaway is that they oscillate 
about a point on the horizon and not well below it, as a real aurora 
ray would. Also, if you are seeing the spot of the beam on clouds, 
looking like a glowing aurora patch, you really can't be seeing aurora 
because of these very clouds. 
    The other is weird. If you look over a highway, carpark, truck 
stop, where cars are moving about and the air be filled with ice fog, 
you may see shafts or columns of light sliding back and forth. They 
can look quite like rays of an aurora. They are just the headlights of 
cars reflected off of the ice in the ground layer of air. 
    The litmus test is that the beams are vertical and parallel and 
they slide across each other. Real aurora rays converge (or radiate if 
you think of them as shooting upwards) and they just about never 
criss-cross over themselfs. 
    Other effects of the City that can fool you are construction 
welding or torching, emergency flashing or rotating lamps, sparks from 
railroad catenary or third rail. The very source may be hidden from 
view by structure or skyline, leaving only the illuminations in the 
sky to fool you. In some cases you should have anticipated the lights, 
like knowing about the railline, or you may be caught by surprise, 
like police action in the next 'hood. 

Auroral forms
    It's ludicrous to describe only in words the varied shapes and 
sizes of display. Check the image gallery of astroclub websites for 
examples of what an aurora can look like. Study pictures in observing 
and aurora books and in magazine articles about northern lights,
    Understand that usually the pictures are for a specially bright 
and extensive aurora of the sort you may not encounter soon. The 
pictures may look blurred and smeared because the aurora moved about 
in the sky during the exposure. The colors may be exaggerated due to 
the erratic reaction of film chemicals to the aurora's brightline 
emission spectrum. 

Illustrations and pictures 
    Articles, books, webs often have illustrations and pictures of 
northern lights. Those painted or drawn try hard to capture the forms 
and structures of the aurora at a given moment, or as a general 
overview of the display. They present the arcs, rays, patches, glows, 
in a realistic scene, according as the skill of the artist. 
     photographic illustrations can be horribly misleading if captured 
on film. Since so much aurora litterature dates from the 20th 
century,, before the diffusion of electronic imaging among aurora 
scientists, the pictures required many seconds to a minute of 
exposure. In that time the formations can shift across the sky, 
blurring their impression on film. The pictures can show blobs, 
smears, spots of color that hardly resemble the scene in the sky. 
    Newer observers can be sent astray during an aurora watch. They 
may pass over real formations in the sky. There was no way out of this 
situation except if the author cautioned the reader in the text or 
picture caption. 
    At the turn of the 21st century a sweeping conversion of imaging 
began from chemical to digital medium. By about 2010 this wholesale 
migration of photography was nearing completion.very new litterature, 
with digital images for illustrations, could present a more fair 
impression of aurora formations. That's because the electronic sensor 
in the camera is an order or more efficient in converting photons into 
image impression than film ever was. The much shorter exposure reduce 
the blurring and smearing from the auroral movement in the sky. 
    And a digital image is manipulable by image editing software to 
add labels and remove distracting parts of the landscape. Judicious 
use of image editing can clarify and highlight aurora features in the 

    The most common aurora seen in New York is the glow. This is a 
swelling of brightness in the north quadrant along the horizon and 
extending up to several tens of degree altitude. Typicly it appears 
rapidly, as if some cosmic lamp were gradually turned up, and then 
stays quietly for many minutes to an hour. After then, it gently fades 
away, leaving a clear sky. When bright it can silhouette clouds in 
front of it; this is one way to tell it's aurora and not ground-based 
    The extent is quite varied among displays. A mild glow can mimic 
the lightcap of a distant conflagration. A substantial glow can fill 
the whole north quadrant up to the zenith.. 
    The glow and usually other features of the aurora are symmetrical 
about the north point. Even so, a particular display may be centered a 
ways off of north, with a trend in the City for northeast.

Arcs and bands 
    An arc is a bland single-color arch spanning northwest to 
northeast and culminating in the north at some tens of degree altitude. 
The bottom edge is well defined while the upper edge is diffuse. It's a 
few degrees broad. Probably the sky below the arc is darker than that 
above, but the arc may be topped by a faint glow not noticed at first. 
    If the arc is folded or kinked, it's called a band. It looks like 
a loose rope or dress/skirt hem. It, like the arc, has a sharp lower 
and diffuse upper margin and a single color thruout. 

    Sprouting from the arc or band may be spikes, pickets, darts, 
beams. These are more or less evenly spaced but their color may 
graduate from top to bottom. In the quiet form, the rays stay put, 
except for brightening or dimming as a unit. 
    Sometimes the rays appear with no arc or band. The spring from a 
convergence point below the north horizon. This is a perspective 
effect; the arc or band is too far away beyond the Earth's curve. 
Physicly the rays align with the local magnetic lines of force, more 
or less vertical, as parallel features. Perspective makes them diverge 
or converge in the sky. 
    I can't think of an instance of an isolated ray, with both ends in 
clear sky. A ray is rooted at one end on an arc/band, the horizon, or 
a corona. 

    A patch is a luminous blotch or spot on the sky detached from the 
horizon. Unlike the glow, a giant patch overlapping the north horizon, 
a patch may sit any where in the sky. It is several degrees across and 
resembles a high power view of a deepsky nebula, a diffuse yet smooth 
glowball. Patches seem from New York to be red most of the time, altho 
they can be of any other color. One peculiarity is that when there are 
several patches in the display, they tend to share a single color.

    A corona is one of the two most fantastic aspects of a major 
aurora. It is a patch high in the south from which rays emanate out in 
all directions, sometimes right down to the horizons. In a well 
developed form the coronal patch has a central hole  devoid of 
luminous material. The corona may start as a small red nebula which 
then shoots its rays out toward the horizons. 
    The corona is at the geomagnetic zenith, the upper vanishing point 
for the magnetic lines of force cutting thru the ground. Or, it's the 
point where the upper end of a freely suspended vertical magnetic 
compass points. For New York this is about 70 degrees up in the south. 
The convergence of rays in the corona is the perspective view of 
parallel lines, similar to the effect of a meteor shower. 

Curtain or drape
    If the northern arc or band sprouts enough rays, they close up 
into a striped sheet reaching toward the zenith to look amazingly like 
a cosmic curtain. At this stage in the display, the curtain may whip 
and flutter as if bluffetted by wind! In the ultimate form, the rays 
of the curtain continue over the zenith to a corona. 
    In general the band/arc and rays have different colors, but there 
seems to be no normal combination for New York.
    The arrival of a curtain or corona marks the grandest extent of 
the display. Such have been seen in full form only a few times from 
the City in the whole 20th century. 

    Aurorae shine by excitation of nitrogen and oxygen in the upper 
air. The three major spectral lines emitted are red at wavelength 
630nm; green, 558nm; blue/violet, 427nm. If you apply to the display a 
simple spectroscope or even just a transmission grating, you'll see 
the picket-fence structure in the aurora spectrum. 
    Where two auroral features overlap, the resulting color is the 
additive mix of the separate ones. Thus merging red and green parts of 
the display will cause a yellow hue. 
    The red, green, and blue spectral emissions are by chance near the 
central wavelengths of the photography tricolor bands! It can be a 
potential useful tool to have to hand a set of these filters. They are 
obtainable from photography or lithography sources. By inspecting the 
suspect aurora thru them you could distinguish it from ground-based 
    The colors you get in photographs will not match those seen by 
eye. Film is made to capture a continuous spectrum of light, typicly 
sunlight. This is indicated by the color temperature rating of the 
film. Daylight film is rated for 5700K or so, the temperature of a 
blackbody radiating a solar spectrum of light. 
    When presented with light of specific discrete wavelengths, such 
as neon lights at a carnival, the film goes nuts. You do get very 
pretty colors but not those you recall seeing in real life. 

Black aurora 
    By far the creepiest color of aurora I ever saw is BLACK. Yes, 
there is such a thing!! In an otherwise luminous display there may be 
some places on the sky where the aurora avoids. It's as if there was a 
'grease spot' there where the aurora 'ink' can't stick. Other 
descriptions are a foreground opaque patch blocking aurora behind it, 
or a hole torn out of skydome. 
    The aurora circulates around this black (actually an absence of 
luminosity with clear sky within it) to slide 'around' or 'behind' it! 
    In the three instances I saw such a phaenomenon, the black spot 
stayed put all thru the display; it did not partake of the agitations 
of other features. On one occasion the black spot wavered in size 
slowly but otherwise did not move about. In all cases, this spot ws in 
the northern quadrant of the sky but not at all symmetrical with the 
other parts of the display. 

    Aurora in the City have to be mighty brilliant to attract your 
attention. Satellite monitoring of the aurora oval shows that New York 
should see several aurora a year in times of active Sun. Most of them 
are weak, about as bright as the Milky Way. given that the Milky Way 
is a rare treat in New York, a weak aurora will be routinely missed. 
    A brighter display is about equal to ground-lighted clouds or 
haze. At this level of brilliance, the aurora could attract public 
attention for being reflection from a large conflagration or other 
earthly calamity.
    The most brilliant of aurorae seen from the City allowed papers 
and charts to be read by them! Under such a display the entire 
populance could be sent panicking into the streets. 
    With clues from color, kinetics, evolution, and so on, you may 
recognize an aurora of the lesser brilliance, before it is dismissed 
for funny cloud. Once and again, you simply have to be intimately 
versed in the luminous behavior of your own sky. 
    When you are in a foreign part of the City, with no fluency about 
the native sky, you may miss or disregard a true aurora. Heartbreaking 
agony is what you'll be in when your fellow astronomers later report 
about the display which you were ignorant of over your head! 

Pulsating and flaming
    Any aurora feature can pulsate, throb and beat in brilliance in a 
timescale of seconds, like a discoteque lamp. This seems, at least for 
displays in the City, to be done almost only by features of a red 
color. Such an action can be awesome, even frightening! Red suggests 
blood, war, danger, evil. The pulsing reminds you of a heart. What 
cosmic fate awaits you!?
    Flaming is seen mostly in the rays. Waves or beads of light sweep 
along the ray like a chaser light. All the rays may flame in 
synchronism or they may so their thing out of step. 

    On the whole aurora features are smooth bland luminous areas. Once 
in a while, specially for glows and large patches, there may be 
texture within them. These are variously described as mottling, weave, 
pebbling, dimpling. The feature has a rough surface, like that of 
stucco, cloth, brick. 

    Aurora features partake in motion, sometimes rather violently. 
Glows and patches are the calmer quieter forms of northern light, 
while the rays and curtain are the most agitated. The motion resembles 
that of lightweight objects blown about in wind, like tree branches, 
flags, smoke. It is this rapid movement that causes so many aurora 
photographs to look blurred and fuzzy while the skyline is sharply 
imaged. Aurora pictures are usually of a many second exposure, during 
which the can be substantial motion of the display. 
    When chronicling a display use the horizontal frame to describe 
motions, not celestial based on RA & dec. It's just a LOT easier to do 
it this way. 

    No two aurorae are the same. There is no standard script for them 
to follow. An aurora may consist of just a calm stable glow. Or it may 
explode into an orgy of gyrating shapes and colors all over the sky. 
Altho you can sense that something gross will happen any second, it's 
impossible to foretell just what to expect. 
    The forms arrive by resolving out of the dark sky as a swelling of 
brightness. The leave by waning in luminance. Some features come by 
growing from nothing to some large area and then go by contracting 
back to nothing size.
    Patches have a tendency to align along an arc, roughly with a 
declination parallel as they come and go. In a strong display the 
patches may grow in number until they merge into a continuous band. 
This band later may fragment back into patches, which then one by one 
fade away.

    It is generally accepted that aurora do not produce ordinary 
acoustic sounds. The air where they live is far too thin for that. 
Never the less reliable accounts abound of noises heard during 
    The sound is variously described as a fireplace flame, frying pan 
cooking, crinkling cellophane, distant train whistle, aeolian tones, 
snaps and pops. 
    It may be that you are picking up electromagnetic induction in the 
ear, where the vibrations of the eardrum are converted into electric 
signals for the brain to interpret. You may have heard such sounds 
near electric machines or power lines. 
    I hazard that with the perpetual ambient noise in the City any 
sound caused by aurora will be completely submerged. But do listen 
carefully and try to discern if a new noise is in the air not present 
before or after the aurora. 
    I suppose that if you witness northern lights from a remote empty 
quiet site with fresh snow on the ground (to absorb and stifle local 
noise) and you keep real still, there is the chance to listen up for 
any celestial sounds. 
    I have no knowledge of anyone successfully audiotaping aurora 
noise to confirm what was heard by ear. I may suggest that if the 
aurora noise is an electromagnetic effect, the recorder will pick it 
up and impress it on tape like static. However, the recorded noise may 
may not faithfully replicate the acoustic sensation of auroral sounds. 

Documenting the display 
    Do not try to make a faithful drawing of the aurora on the spot. 
Time is precious and the display may be too kinetic for you to capture 
on paper all of its details. In the stead, make schematic notes and 
plots on a prepared chart. 
    Have a supply of allsky starmaps with the brighter stars plotted 
at half hour intervals thru the night of your watch. Leave off all 
labels and grids. Stars to second or third magnitude are enough for 
viewing northern lights in the City. Mark the compass points around 
the horizon. 
    Know for sure the compass points in your skyline at your viewing 
site! Do this by day against landmarks.
    In the field it's best to leave off of instruments for angle 
measures. They can be distracting to operate and hard to read in the 
dark. Go by the the fist-&-clock method of taking altitudes and 
azimuth. The closed fist at arm length is quite ten degrees. For the 
clock in azimuth, twelve is north; three, east; six, south; nine, 
    Have a clock (for telling time) with large or lighted numbers; set 
this with a reliable time source to within a minute. 
    Have pens, felttips, notepad with you.
    As the aurora develops, take alt-azimuth readings of the 
boundaries, extremities, and edges of the features and note the time. 
Then plot them on the sky chart. You  can also bank off of the stars 
for fixing points of the display. It's not critical to scale off the 
distances on the chart; be sure to litterally write in the 
measurements. From these you can later make a clean scaled plot 
    If the display starts running away from you, drop the chart and 
scribble in the notepad. Use any abbreves and symbols you want. Firm 
up these notes soonest you get back indoors. Memory erodes very 
quickly over the ensuing days. 
    When you take pictures, note the time of the exposure and the 
center of the camera field. You'll be astounded how difficult it is a 
week later, when the film comes back, to decipher your images! Digital 
images are no less tough to figure out if they are uploaded even only 
a few hours later. 

Notifying others
    It can be immensely frustrating to witness an aurora and know that 
other astronomers around you may be missing it! However I advise 
AGAINST quitting your watch to call your fellows. It's better to 
capture a continuous record of the display than to lose large parts of 
it due to absence in search of other observers. 
    If you got in hand mobile comms (cellphone, radio email, pager 
ringup), then, yes, sound the alarm to your fellow astronomers. You 
continue to monitor the display with only momentary diversion to 
operate your piece. Have with you the addresses of these folk when you 
do aurora observing. 

    Starting in about 2000 and essentially complete by 2010 
photography shifted from film to digital imaging. Also picture-taking 
functions were built into many small electronic devices besides 
'cameras'. Any person, not just an astronomer, can take excellent 
aurora pictures with gadgets like computer tablets, netbooks, watches, 
cell-phones, even some hats!, without a dedicated camera. 
    With the extremely sensitive and efficient sensor inside a digital 
imaging module e,  only a  couple seconds of exposure can capture good 
northern light picture.s.  
    The exposure may be adequate just by shooting the aurora in the 
device's automatic mode. Else, manually set the exposure to, say, 4 to 
8 seconds. 
    An imaging module may be built to shoot in 'color' mode, often 
with no other option. If so, this is one less parameter to worry 
about. Else deliberately set the device to in color, not black-&-white  
or other monochrome. 
    You have to prop up the device to aim at the sky and use the timed 
shutter. The aiming is easier from the the live-view panel. The much 
smaller and lighter mass of most electronic gadgets compared to 
traditional film cameras makes it simpler to support the scene with 
handy props. A regular tripod is not a necessity like for film 
cameras. There is no need for strong zoom. Aurora features have no 
minute texture or internal structure. Shoot with a wide field  and try 
to include some landscape for scale. 
    In preparation for picture-taking at night with no lighting, 
practice operating your imaging gadget entirely by feel. Be careful 
about hanging memory cards and batteries in the dark. 
    Virtually all electronic devices, cameras and others with picture-
taking module, run off of batteries. You must have a stock of fresh  
batteries. This is specially the case for aurora seen under cold air. 
    It is tempting to examine the image on the viewing screen after 
each shot. This is a gross mistake. Yes, inspect the first one or two 
pictures to be sure there was no blunder in setting the device. Then 
after, concentrate of the show above you. The aurora can be kinetic 
and evolving, requiring your attention on the sky  at all times. Just 
take pictures and worry about the images after the display winds down. 

    Northern lights populate the atmosphere from 90-100 kilometers up 
to 200-300 kilometers. From places in the City a few kilometers apart 
it should be feasible to do triangulation on a display. It seems 
simple to do with photographs and some play on a calculette.
    It in fact is disgustingly tough. The main problem is that you can 
never be sure the two stations are sighting the same exact point in 
the display. With the motion and evolution of a display, the stations 
may bank off of entirely different spots, rendering any calculations 
ridiculously wrong.
    You could try preplanned photographs of a certain constellation at 
certain times. Within the picture pairs you may find some definite 
identity of some spot for your triangulation.

    Northern light displays from New York City are rare and can be 
easily missed within the overall sky luminance. Never the less, you 
can see the brighter shows from even the center of Manhattan IF you 
are prepared and are sky-wisely. Mind the auroral alerts, exercise 
your eyes and mind on the normal behavior of your sky, Have aurora 
tools to hand, and hang loose.