When you’re in the northern hemisphere, the night sky sometimes lights up with colors that dance on the horizon. This phenomenon is an aurora borealis or the northern lights. Auroras occur when the sun releases high-speed electrically charged particles that collide with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere during a coronal mass ejection, a type of solar wind storm. When the solar winds approach the planet, particles travel down the magnetic field lines and interact with gases in the atmosphere. Oxygen produces red and green lights, while nitrogen produces purple and blue lights. Aurora borealis chasers often travel to latitudes closer to the North Pole to see the lights because it places them closer to the magnetic field. The sweet spot is around 65° to 72° latitude, but it is possible to see them as far south as 35°, depending on the storm’s strength and light pollution levels. When heading to a northern destination in a chartered jet, keep an eye on the aurora forecast to see if an aurora might make an appearance.
Sometimes Auroras are Present Even if You Can’t See Them
Human eyes are simple. They consist of cones that detect colors in bright lights to help you see during the day. Rods detect fainter lights in shades of black, white and gray to help you see at night. The problem is that you sometimes need cones to see the northern lights at night. (While there are auroras during the day, the sunlight makes them impossible to see.) So, even if there is an aurora present, you might not be able to see it because you’re looking at it with your eye’s rods. Even when storms are stronger, your eyes won’t allow you to appreciate their full beauty.
Here’s a trick: see the aurora with your camera by taking photos. When setup correctly, cameras detect the majestic colors, regardless of the time of day because they aren’t limited by rods and cones. If an aurora is present, but you can’t see it with your eyes, your camera lens might give you a glimpse of the show.
It’s important to keep in mind that auroras are unpredictable. Scientists cannot tell you the best times of night to see them (between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. is the best bet) or if they’ll be visible in your area. They can only tell you when they may occur based on current solar activity. Because daylight may last 18 hours or more up north during the warm-weather months, the best times of year to seriously chase auroras is late fall through early spring.
Where to See the Northern Lights
The United States and Canada
Alaska and northern Canada are within the aurora oval, making them prime nearby locations. Even U.S. states that border Canada get their fair share of light displays.
The adults-only Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks, Alaska, encourages its visitors to see the lights dance from a hot spring. If you like to go to bed before midnight, a staff member will call you upon request if the aurora is active.
Prime viewing spots in Canada include Ontario, Calgary, Manitoba and the tundra back-country.
In late January, Norwegians celebrate the aurora with the annual Nordlysfestivalen (Northern Lights Festival). The festivities feature live musical performances, with some taking place under an aurora. Because Tromsø is above the Arctic Circle, close to the Earth’s magnetic north pole, the lights are frequently active at night between October and mid-March. The area experiences Polar Nights (24 hours of darkness) between mid-November and the end of January, giving you more hours in the day to watch the spectacle.
Finnish residents call the northern lights revontulet, which means “fox fire.” According to ancient myths, a magical fox caused the lights to appear when it swept its tail across the snow and whipped it into the sky. Watch the northern lights from the comfort of a private glass igloo at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, where the lights are most active from late August to early May. If traveling with children, take a five-minute drive to Santa’s home.