Northern Canada is one of the best locations, thanks to its northern latitude and huge empty spaces, which cuts down on light pollution. Alaska, particularly up near Fairbanks, is a popular destination for those would be aurora-hunters.
Picture the scene: the campfire is crackling to keep away the cold, you have a glass of something strong to warm the soul, and you’re sitting beside someone you hold dear. Looking up into the clear night sky, thousands of stars splayed out on the canvas of the cosmos, colors begin to swirl and whip, electric green and yellow, pink and purple and blue.
For the briefest moment, you consider whether you’ve fallen asleep, only to wake in the world of dreams, but that’s when it clicks—you’re seeing the northern lights. If you want to experience this incredible phenomena and witness it with your own eyes, it will likely take some traveling, and fortunate timing, but if it’s not on your bucket list for life, it should be.
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What Are The Northern Lights?
Before we get into the best tips on where to see the northern lights, let’s first make sure that we understand what they are and how they’re generated in the atmosphere.
Also known as the aurora borealis (whereas the far less famous southern lights are known as aurora australis), the Northern lights are a magnificent natural light show generated by solar wind and the magnetic field of Earth. More specifically, let’s begin with the sun.
Despite being more than 90 million miles away, it still has an incredibly important impact on every single day of life on Earth. The radiation generated by the sun heats our planet and allows life to flourish thanks to being the “perfect” distance away from Earth.
However, the sun is stile extremely close to our planet on an astronomical scale, so when the sun’s activity increases, it can have an effect on Earth. When the sun goes through these “high-activity” phases, it can more drastically affect the solar system’s “weather”. Massive coronal ejections and the incredibly complex magnetic field of the sun can cause huge gusts of solar wind to blow out into the solar system. These gusts frequently blow past Earth, but our atmosphere is largely protected by our magnetic field, which forms an invisible shield around the planet.
When intense solar winds, with their own magnetic fields, begin to interact with Earth, they can pull our magnetic field lines out of place (temporarily). Inevitably, the lines will snap back into their proper place, dragging many of the particles from the solar wind back into Earth’s own atmosphere at incredible speed and intensity. These highly charged solar particles will excite gases present in our atmosphere, causing them to glow in a range of different colors. Oxygen particles will glow red at heights of more than 200km, while they may glow green at lower altitudes; similarly, nitrogen will glow blue in mid-range altitudes, but purple or crimson below 100km in the sky. More rare
The ethereal and mesmerizing northern and southern lights are the direct result of this out-of-this-world interaction. While we see only the smooth flowing lines of neon colors, this is actually a violent and electrifying phenomena occurring more than 100 kilometers above our heads!
Where Can You See the Northern Lights?
If that description has been enough to get you salivating for your own northern lights experience, it may not be the easiest task. The northern lights are primarily visible above the 55th parallel north, an area known as the auroral oval. Similarly, in the southern hemisphere, the aurora is visible below the 55th parallel south.
The aurora borealis (northerns lights) gets a lot more attention than the aurora australis (southern lights) because there are far more places where you can see the former. The southern lights are only visible from the southern tip of Australia and New Zealand, since there are far fewer landmasses in the southern hemisphere near the south pole. Obviously, you can also see the southern lights from Antarctica, but considering there are only about 4,000 people on the entire Antarctic continent at one time, it isn’t the most accessible viewing spot.
In terms of the northern lights, there are far more opportunities to see them. Northern Canada is one of the best locations, thanks to its northern latitude and huge empty spaces, which cuts down on light pollution. Alaska, particularly up near Fairbanks, is a popular destination for those would be aurora-hunters. On the other side of the Atlantic, the northern reaches of places like Norway, Finland, Sweden and Greenland are ideally placed for seasonal aurora viewing. Finally, if you find yourself in Iceland, much of the coastal regions, isolated from large light-producing cities, are bathed in the beautiful light of the aurora.
While these are the normal places you can see the auroras, periods of intense solar activity will generate even more powerful winds than usual. When these storms blow over the Earth, they can pull more magnetic field lines than normal, and when these snap back into place, auroras can be seen from lower latitudes, even as far south as the British Isles and parts of Germany. Although these storms provide a rare chance to see the auroras at lower latitudes, such powerful solar ejections can disrupt satellites and wreak havoc on communications for days at a time!
When Can You See Auroras?
There are no “seasons” when it comes to solar wind, making it hard to predict when the magnetic fields will be affected, but there are times of year when auroras are more likely to be seen, due to the tilt of the Earth and its angle towards the Sun. When you go far enough north during the winter months, the sun begins setting earlier and rising later. Late September to late March is the best time of year to try and catch the northern lights; at the height of summer in these far-flung regions, almost no northern light activity will be visible.
On the opposite end of the spectrum—and the planet—the southern lights are best seen from late April until late October, when that region experiences the longest stretches of darkness.
A Final Word
For some, seeing the northern lights is a lifelong dream, while for those who live in the furthest corners of the world, it may as common as thunderstorms and lightning. These remarkable natural phenomena may require some effort to enjoy, but they are awe-inspiring, humbling and visible from some of the most beautiful places on Earth—so get out there and keep your eyes on the skies!