The northern lights, one of several astronomical phenomena called polar lights (aurora polaris), are shafts or curtains of colored light visible on occasion in the night sky.
Polar lights (aurora polaris) are a natural phenomenon found in both the northern and southern hemispheres that can be truly awe inspiring. Northern lights are also called by their scientific name, aurora borealis, and southern lights are called aurora australis.
The origin of the aurora begins on the surface of the sun when solar activity ejects a cloud of gas. Scientists call this a coronal mass ejection (CME). If one of these reaches earth, taking about 2 to 3 days, it collides with the Earth’s magnetic field. This field is invisible, and if you could see its shape, it would make Earth look like a comet with a long magnetic ‘tail’ stretching a million miles behind Earth in the opposite direction of the sun.
When a coronal mass ejection collides with the magnetic field, it causes complex changes to happen to the magnetic tail region. These changes generate currents of charged particles, which then flow along lines of magnetic force into the Polar Regions. These particles are boosted in energy in Earth’s upper atmosphere, and when they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, they produce dazzling auroral light.
Can I see them anywhere?
Yes, although they are more frequent at higher latitudes and places like Alaska, Canada, and Antarctica, closer to the Earth’s poles. Occasionally, they have been seen closer to the equator, and even as far south as Mexico. To view them, look in the direction of the closest pole (the northern horizon in the northern hemisphere, the southern horizon in the southern hemisphere).
Can I see them at any time of the year?
Yes. In some areas, such as Alaska or Greenland, they may be visible most nights of the year. And they occur at any time of the day, but we can’t see them with the naked eye unless it’s dark.
What causes the colors and patterns?
Colors and patterns are from the types of ions or atoms being energized as they collide with the atmosphere and are affected by lines of magnetic force. Displays may take many forms, including rippling curtains, pulsating globs, traveling pulses, or steady glows. Altitude affects the colors. Blue violet/reds occur below 60 miles (100 km), with bright green strongest between 60-150 miles (100-240 km). Above 150 miles (240 km) ruby reds appear.
Magical Places to View Northern Lights
Even without the northern lights, Iceland is an otherworldly place to visit, with glaciers, geysers, massive waterfalls, and volcanoes. Both the latitude and longitude of the country favor aurora viewing, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate. However, a good coastline road around the country lets you chase clear skies.
I have seen my best auroras from Kirkjufell mountain on the west coast. In high activity you can even spy the northern lights from the suburbs of Reykjavík; the Grotta Lighthouse is a popular viewing spot.
Across the country, sky watchers can take in the dancing lights from outdoor hot tubs, inside Buubble lodges, and from hot spring lagoons.
When to Go: Late August to early April
Located just two degrees below the Arctic near international airport and close to the impressive Denali National Park, Fairbanks is the best place in the U.S. to take in the northern lights. It even has its own forecast system and offers tours to take visitors far from city lights.
When to Go: Late August to mid-April
This Northwest Territories capital on the shores of Great Slave Lake boasts its own Aurora Village and special activities for northern lights tourism.
Canada is an aurora viewing paradise, thanks to its northern latitude and low light pollution; elsewhere in the country, Wood Buffalo and Jasper National Park are popular viewing spots.
When to Go: Mid-August to late April. For Churchill and Wood Buffalo, early August to early May.
The largest urban area in northern Norway is 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle, but thanks to the Gulf Stream the coastline has surprisingly moderate temperatures. It also has beautiful scenery, magnificent fjords, and the Lyngen Alps.
I have seen spectacular auroras from the village of Ersfjordbotn, 12 miles from Tromsø. Other popular locations in the country are the Lofoten Islands and the far northern towns of Alta, Nordkapp, and Kirkenes.
When to Go: Mid-September to late March
Northern Sweden and Finland
Sweden’s northernmost town of Kiruna is a gateway for nearby attractions. There is the ICEHOTEL, mountainous Abisko National Park, the local Sami culture, and plentiful reindeer. A short drive from the town takes you to a good spot for aurora viewing. The weather here is much more stable than the Norwegian coast, but it’s colder too.
When to Go: Mid-September to late March
It’s possible to be too far north to see the northern lights—such is the case in northern Greenland. But head farther south for beautiful auroras and attractions like Qaleraliq Glacier, which has small floating icebergs even in summer.
When to Go: Mid-August to late April in the south and late August to mid-April in Nuuk.
Tasmania and New Zealand
You hear about northern lights more often than southern lights (aurora australis) because there are fewer locations to see auroras from the Southern Hemisphere. Your best chance is on the southern tip of both Tasmania (Australia) and New Zealand, where a dark sky will help you see any active auroras over the southern horizon. These are the closest accessible places to the south magnetic pole, outside of Antarctica.
When to Go: Year round, but your best chances are near equinoxes.