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Weak year for aurora may not have stopped tourists

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Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2013 12:15 am | Updated: 8:20 am, Sun Dec 29, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — In a rare event that happens on a roughly 11 year-cycle, the charged particles that cause the aurora borealis are hitting a maximum this winter.

Almost as rare, Alaska's second largest city received a wave of coverage this year from major international travel publications including The Lonely Planet and National Geographic, advising visitors that this is a good year to come see the northern lights.

But notwithstanding a dazzling light show Christmas Eve, it's actually been a low year for the aurora, or at least a low year for what's supposed to be a peak period. Whether it'll also be a disappointing year for aurora-related tourism remains to be seen.

This year's aurora activity was forecast to be quieter than the past two 11-year cycles, according to Roger Smith, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a former director of the Geophysical Institute.

"It was predicted to be weak and it's been weaker than it's been predicted," he said.

The sunspot number, a statistic used to quantify solar activity associated with the aurora, was forecast to average between 80 or 85 during this solar maximum, Smith said. In fact, it's been closer to 60, Smith said. The number is based on the number of visible spots on the sun as well as a calculation for those on the far side of the sun that aren't visible from earth.

The strength of solar activity isn't the only factor for aurora visibility in Fairbanks. While large barrages of charged particles can produce big displays, they also can send the activity south of Fairbanks, he said.

For Bernie Karl, owner of the Chena Hot Springs Resort, an important aurora-related number is the number of chartered winter planes from Japan carrying visitors to Fairbanks. That number was 14 last year and 19 this year, he said.

But Karl said the travel media coverage this year has most likely boosted his Alaska numbers as much as anything else.

"Alaskans read. Alaskans are great readers," he said. "We haven't seen the increase from outside of Alaska (the Lower 48), but we have seen it from inside Alaska."

Ten years ago, only about 10 percent of visitors to his resort came from within the United States. Thanks in large part to an influx of Alaskan visitors, about 50 percent of the resort's visitors now come from the United States, he said.

In the University West neighborhood, 7 Gables Inn and Suites owner Paul Welton said he's also seen a noticeable demographic change recently, although he's not sure if it's related to the sunspots.

Traditionally, vacationing Japanese retirees are a wintertime mainstay for the Fairbanks bed and breakfast. This year introduced a new population of international visitors, Chinese college students in Fairbanks on vacation from colleges 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."

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.

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