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Weaker-than-predicted aurora on display

Posted: December 31, 2013 - 1:07am

FAIRBANKS — This has been a lower-than-expected year for the aurora borealis, though it’s not yet clear what impact, if any, that might have on tourists that visit the Fairbanks area to see the northern lights.

Fairbanks had received coverage in major trade publications, including The Lonely Planet and National Geographic, advising readers that this would be a good year to see the aurora.

The charged particles that cause the aurora are hitting a maximum this winter in an event that happens on a roughly 11-year cycle. But Roger Smith, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and former director of the Geophysical Institute, tells the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner this year’s activity was forecast to be weaker than the past two cycles and has been weaker than predicted.

The sunspot number, used to quantify solar activity associated with the aurora, was forecast to average between 80 or 85 during this solar maximum, but it has been around 60 instead, Smith said. The number is based on visible sun spots and a calculation for those not visible from earth.

Other factors also influence aurora visibility in Fairbanks, and while barrages of charged particles can produce big displays, Smith said they also can send the activity south of Alaska’s second largest city.

Bernie Karl, owner of the Chena Hot Springs Resort, said the number of chartered winter planes from Japan carrying visitors to Fairbanks is up, from 14 last year to 19 this year.

But he said he’s seen an increase in visitors from within Alaska, rather than from the Lower 48, which he attributes to the travel media coverage.

While about 10 percent of the resort’s visitors were from within the U.S. 10 years ago, about half are now from the United States, thanks largely to an influx of Alaska visitors, he said.

Paul Welton, the owner of 7 Gables Inn and Suites, said there’s been a demographic change in visitors though he’s not sure if it’s aurora related.

Vacationing Japanese retirees have traditionally stayed at the bed and breakfast in winter, but this year brought new visitors: Chinese college students on break from schools in the Lower 48.

“Last March, we got surprised. In March, we had the most Chinese we have ever had. It was because it coincided with spring break for the colleges,” he said. “They’ve got a couple of weeks, they’ve got a couple of thousand dollars to burn. I guess this is one of the places where they come.”

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