Photos don’t do the northern lights justice.
To fully appreciate the fame and grandeur of this celestial representation, also known as the Aurora Borealis, you must sit under the ever-changing lights and watch them curve and ripple, slide and flicker. This is how you see the northern lights.
Amazing Aurors: Stunning Northern Lights Photos
“I was at the campsite, lying in a sleeping bag in a field in late September, looking up at the stars,” said Terry Onsager, a physicist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.
“Suddenly the most spectacular lights, swirls and rays filled the sky, dancing and flitting here and there,” Onsager told Space.com. “It was just amazing.”
(Photo credit: Chad Blakley / www.lightsoverlapland.com)
Onsager had his aurora experience in Northern Norway – one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. You could follow in his footsteps or make your own path somewhere along the “auroral zone” that surrounds the northern reaches of the earth. But you need to know when and where to go. For example, summer can be a good time to go on vacation, but a better time to see aurors is actually between winter and spring.
Read on to find out when and where to see the Northern Lights and what powers this dazzling display.
When should i go
(Photo credit: Karl Tate, SPACE.com employee)
When planning an aurora sightseeing tour, don’t schedule it in the middle of summer. You need darkness to see the northern lights, and locations in the auroral zone get little of it in the summer months.
You want clear skies too. Winter and spring are generally less cloudy than autumn in and around the northern auroral zone. So, traveling between December and April makes sense, Charles Deehr, professor emeritus and aurora forecaster at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, told Space.com. Ideally, you should plan your trip to coincide with the new moon and stay away from the city lights when it is time to check, he added.
“Dress warmly and plan on observing the sky between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time, although an active period can occur at any time during the dark hours,” wrote Deehr in the Geophysical Institute’s Guide to Aurora Observation, the Many Great Contains information. “Active periods typically last about 30 minutes and occur every two hours when activity is high. The aurora is a sporadic phenomenon that happens to occur for short periods of time or not at all.”
You can get an idea of how active the Northern Lights are likely to be in your area by monitoring a short-term aurora forecast such as the one provided by the Geophysical Institute here: http://www.gi.alaska. edu / AuroraForecast.
And you can have an aurora experience without leaving your home if you so choose. The Canadian Space Agency offers a live feed of the sky over Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronomy/auroramax.
Where to in Europe
So where should you go If you live in Europe, the easiest way to travel is to the far north of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
“In general, Scandinavia is set up,” Deehr told Space.com. “They are in good shape for that.”
Northern Norway, especially the area around Tromsø, is a particularly popular travel destination, he added.
“There are lots of tours and lots of English-speaking people willing to take you with them,” said Deehr, adding that the scenery in the region is “fantastic”.
Visit Tromso’s Northern Lights 2020 Information
You can also visit a number of other places, such as Abisko National Park in northern Sweden.
“Abisko has earned a reputation for being the # 1 target for aurora watchers on the planet because it is in a very special microclimate with less rainfall than any other place on earth that is in the aurora zone is located. “Photographer Chad Blakley emailed Space.com to.
Lights Over Lapland, co-founded by Blakley, has been offering Aurora tours in Abisko since 2010. In 2018, the company released footage of a spectacular all-sky aurora during a geomagnetic storm on March 14.
Lights over Lapland’s 2020 Abisko Aurora Tours
Iceland is also a good choice, Deehr said, as long as you allow enough time to make up for the cloudy skies. (The island nation’s weather cannot be cooperative.)
Iceland Northern Lights Tours 2020
ViaTour Northern Lights night tour from Reykjavik
Russia, on the other hand, “is pretty out,” said Deehr. While northern Russia has a decent chunk of the aurora zone, such areas are relatively difficult to get to and lack the tourist infrastructure that most travelers are looking for, he explained.
Where to go in North America
There are also many opportunities for good aurora viewing in North America. But you should probably stay away from far eastern Canada, which tends to be pretty cloudy, Deehr said.
“Between James Bay and the west coast of Alaska – anywhere along this auroral zone is a good place,” he said. (James Bay is the extreme southern part of Canada’s vast Hudson Bay.)
Northern Tales Yukon 2020 Aurora Tours
For example, he said, a Northern Lights trip could focus on Yellowknife or Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon.
Northern lights tours
Or a traveler could take a train through the Aurora Zone to the town of Churchill, Manitoba on the west bank of Hudson Bay – an area known for its polar bear population.
“It’s a great, adventurous country,” said Deehr of the Canadian auroral region.
Churchill Arctic Adventures 2020 tours
In Alaska, visibility is good anywhere north of Fairbanks. In Fairbanks itself, residents see the northern lights about eight out of ten nights, Deehr said.
Aurora Tours 2020 by Alaska Tours
The northern lights arise when charged particles flowing from the sun collide with molecules high up in the earth’s atmosphere, excite these molecules and make them glow.
“It’s like the fluorescent lights in our offices – they have electricity flowing through them that excites the atoms and the atoms glow,” Onsager said.
The different colors of the northern lights come from different molecules: oxygen emits yellow, green and red light; while nitrogen is responsible for blue and purple hues.
Earth’s magnetic field lines direct these solar particles toward the planet’s north and south magnetic poles, which explains why aurors – the aurora borealis and its southern counterpart, the aurora australis – are high-latitude phenomena.
In fact, most nights, weather permitting, the aurora borealis is visible in a band several hundred miles wide centered at about 66 degrees north – roughly the same latitude as the Arctic Circle.
This “standard” aurora is created by the solar wind – the particles are constantly flowing from the sun. However, solar storms known as coronal mass ejections (CME) can boost the northern lights significantly and make them visible over much larger areas. For example, last year a CME allowed skywatchers as far as Illinois and Ohio to take a look at it. However, if you plan an aurora-spotting trip weeks or months in advance, you cannot count on the help of a solar storm, so you should head to a destination near the north ring.
Connected: The Wrath of the Sun: The Worst Solar Storms in History
The southern auroral ring lies above Antarctica and is very difficult to reach for sky observers or other people. Therefore, this article focuses on the Northern Lights – not on antipodal antipathy for practical reasons. (Southern hemisphere residents have courage: the aurora australis can sometimes be seen from New Zealand and Tasmania.)
There is also a mysterious, aurora-like brightening phenomenon in Earth’s atmosphere called “Steve” that is not due to aurora, although scientists are unsure of its cause.
(Photo credit: Krista Trinder / NASA)
Earth is not unique in hosting aurors.
The giant gas giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) each produce their own aurors due to their magnetic fields and thick atmospheres. However, the colors of the gases change due to the different atmospheres and magnetospheres of the individual planets.
Venus and Mars also have some kind of aurors. The spacecraft Venus Express found that solar field interactions with the planet’s ionosphere form a “magnetic tail” that creates an aurora when the accelerated particles hit the atmosphere. Mars has local aurors via magnetic fields in its crust as well as a larger northern hemisphere aurora created from solar energetic particles hitting the atmosphere.
Editor’s note: If you want to take an amazing photo of the Northern Lights and share it with Space.com and our news partners for a story or gallery, send pictures to [email protected]
This story, originally published in April 2016, has been updated for 2020.
Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Spacedotcom and on Facebook.