Aurora Borealis or the Northern lights cannot be described but is an experience of a lifetime. They are said to be beautiful and odd, mythical and scientific. You can see the Northern Lights on the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere. The Aurora is green or pink, yellow or blue and the best time to see them would be on a clear night sky.
So, is it okay to call the aurora borealis a rainbow or natural fireworks? Or is it as Finnish folk used to believe the northern lights are the symbolic representation of the archangel Michael battling Beelzebub?
Most certainly not. So, what are the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis that most people all over the world are so keen to see at least once in their lifetime? The famous astronomer, Galileo named the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, a Latin word meaning ‘dawn of the North.’ But the origins of the Northern Lights were not interpreted till 1896.
It was the year Christian Birkeland, a scientist from Norway gave a scientific explanation to Northern Lights. After rejecting the misconceptions surrounding the northern lights phenomenon, he concluded that solar wind, magnetic field, and excited gases are necessary for the formation of the shimmering display of the Aurora in the Northern Hemisphere.
How Are the Northern Lights Seen?
Northern lights can be seen in various forms, but sometimes they are visible and sometimes not. There are bright Aurora lights that shimmer and swirl like a river, moving fast Aurora that moves quickly, and sometimes they appear to be dancing in the clear night sky.
Contribution By Christian Birkeland
Christian Birkeland explained that the formation of Northern Lights requires:
1. Solar Wind
What is solar wind? The sun releases magnetically charged particles from its uppermost atmosphere into the Earth’s atmosphere. Solar wind can thus be defined as the escape of positively charged particles i.e. atoms and negatively charged particles ie., electrons. They carry enough energy from the sun towards the earth’s atmosphere at a phenomenal shattering speed of 1 million miles per hour.
2. Magnetic Field
The magnetic field is found in the Earth’s atmosphere. Most of the escaped atoms and electrons do not harm the Earth. But, the ones that do make it through are the ones that fall on the north and the south poles of Earth’s atmosphere which are said to have a weak magnetic field. What happens next is a shining, shimmering natural display of Aurora Borealis.
3. Excited Gases
Some of the gases that are found in the Earth’s atmosphere are oxygen and nitrogen. Energy found in the electrons is passed on to these gases and they, in turn, become excited. The atoms then release some of the energy into the Earth’s atmosphere. These are called photons. The photons are breathtaking to look at in a clear sky.
If the electrons interact with oxygen, you get to see a yellow-green aurora. It then turns red. The Aurora turns blue if the electrons interact with Nitrogen. Not to forget, as the colors blend, there is every possibility of viewing the aurora in purple, pink, and white as well.
The entire phenomenon is dependent on the severity of the solar wind, which in turn depends on the solar cycle. The Northern Lights are produced at all hours of the Earth’s solar cycle and the only difference is that the sunlight outshines the vibrant display of lights during the daytime.
The entire process of the magnetic activity can be compared to that of opening a fizzy drink bottle. A lot of energy is found in the bottle if a person gives it a violent shake and after he opens it, a huge flow of fizzy bubbles is thrown up into the air.
The same way the magnetic particles in the air are shaken up by the protons and electrons from the Sun. So, instead of bubbles, the result is an endless stream of lights or the Aurora or the Northern Lights.
Key Factors That Are Necessary for the Appearance of the Northern Lights
- The existence of the atmosphere is the key factor as, without it, the particles cannot collide. Therefore, without atmosphere, the lights will not appear.
- The particles need to be magnetic, so that energy emitted can be transmitted to the atoms.
- The magnetic field is necessary as without it the process would continue endlessly.
- A source of energy which in the case of the Earth is the sun is needed abundantly to charge the particles.
The Northern Lights appear in different formations. You can see the aurora in different shapes and colors and the Aurora shapes are called an Arch, a Band, or a Corona. The varied features of the Aurora Arch are :
- A grand arc that moves across from the east to the west.
- The color of the aurora is greenish and the edges are fuzzy.
- Bottom of the aurora arch has sharp edges.
- Upper aurora arch has blurred edges.
- Some aurora arcs are active and resemble curtains on the move.
- Length is 1000 km and above.
- Width is limited to 100 m.
An Aurora band is like the arc, but it is curled and spiral in shape. A corona is formed if you stand below the northern lights in the same direction of the magnetic field. It will be as though the Aurora rays are radiating from a single point.
Shapes and the shades of the Northern Lights keep changing frequently. The entire activity may last as long as ten minutes, so it is best if you keep checking as often as you can.
There is a possibility that although you are at the right location but are unable to see the Northern Lights because of the appearance of clouds or the morning part of the day.
The northern lights phenomenon is so unique that most people save it in their bucket list of things to see once in their lifetime. Those who have been able to accomplish this have described their experience to be stunning and a sight that can never be forgotten.
Where Can You See the Northern Lights?
The best time of year to see the Northern lights is during the winter season in the Arctic region. The night sky during the winter season is dark and clear of any clouds. The winter season is the time of year that lasts from late September to late March or early April. The sky is dark and the viewing conditions during this time of year are often the best time to see the auroral activity.
The Northern lights can be seen during the time between 05.00 pm and 02.00 am. Many auroras appear only for some time and then move away to return. Therefore, the best time of year to see the Northern lights will be during the winter season.
5 Best Countries to See the Northern Lights
- North America
1. Northern Lights in Iceland
Iceland has some of the best places to travel to see the Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis can be seen every night as the country is ideally located at 65 degrees North on the Arctic circle’s southern edge. The chance to see the awesome Northern Lights are extremely high as the nights in Iceland are clear and dark.
The Northern Lights may be seen in any part of Iceland if the weather is right and conditions are favorable to view the Auroras. It is important to research the place you are going to see the Northern Lights. You can see some of the best Aurora formations in Iceland at The Thingvellir National Park, The Asbyrgi Canyon, and the Kirkjufell Mountain.
Finest Places to See the Northern Lights in Iceland
1. Westfjords and North Iceland
2. Vik and South Iceland
3.Places Around Reykjavik
With longer periods of darkness and fewer clouds, the Westfjords and North Iceland are surreal to watch the magic of the Northern Lights. The Auroral activity is bright and colorful.
South Iceland offers plenty of options to see the Northern Lights. You will get to see some best light shows in Iceland on a trip to the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon to the black sand beach. South Iceland’s Winter season is regarded as some of the best times of year to watch the polar lights
There are many parks to see the Northern Lights around Reykjavik. There is a tremendous possibility to see the Auroral activity in all its beauty and varied colors of green, red, and purple. A trip to the Klambratun Park and Laugardalur Park from September to March is great to see the polar light show.
Grotta Lighthouse at Seljarnarnes peninsula in Reykjavik is an excellent viewing spot for the ever-eluding Aurora Borealis. Other locations to see the Northern Lights would be Oskjuhlid Hill and the Perlan Restaurant.
In some places in Iceland, you can travel to campsites to see the northern lights without any extra cost between April and September. You must have sufficient luck on your side to see the Aurora in the autumn and the winter season as well.
A travel guide would be an added advantage to see the Northern Lights in Iceland in September, October, November, December, January, February, and March.
2. Northern Lights in Finland
Finland has some of the best places to see the Auroras, but any times Finland has been overlooked for Norway. A trip to Finland is just as good as a trip to Norway for Northern Lights and Finland is termed as one of the best aurora destinations in the world,
Northern Lights in Finland can be seen from the Autumn season (late August to September) and the long winter season between November to March. In Spring, the Northern Lights may not be visible in Finland
Top Most Places to See the Northern Lights in Finland
Northern Lights in Rovaniemi are seen nearly 150 times in a year. A trip to Rovaniemi will guarantee the pleasure of watching the Auroras for hours.
One of the best travel spots and known for its Snow Castle, Kemi has all the ingredients that are needed to watch the polar lights. Tourists can rent glass villas to view them. September and October is the best time of the year to experience the Auroras.
The Northern Lights are best visible in the winter season between September to March for as many as 200 days in Saariselka. One can travel to Utsjoki, Nellim, Kittila, Ivalo, Sodankyla, and Kiplisjarvi in Finland to enjoy the Aurora light formations for several hours.
3. Northern Lights in Norway
Many believe that Norway is the right place on Earth to see the Northern Lights, and it has seen plenty of visitors during its winter months. Every tourist to this destination has confessed that viewing the Aurora in Norway has been a great one.
Northern Lights in Norway are seen in the autumn (September to November) and winter seasons (December to March).
The possibility to see an Aurora each night is certain due to the onset of the autumnal equinox in September. During the winter season, you see the northern lights often as the nights are long. In some places in Norway, the nights will be so long that the sun does not rise between November and January.
Foremost Places to See the Northern Lights in Norway
The greatest advantage of Svalbard is its location. Between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, sky gazers can see the Northern lights during the night as well as the day in the territories of Svalbard.
A prime place to see the northern lights is Bodo, which is located a few miles from the Ranvikfjelit mountain and is the best destination to see the aurora show.
Norway’s largest city, Tromso is pollution-free and has some of the best viewing spots. The Aurora borealis are good to watch from this destination.
The other destinations in Norway to view the polar lights would be Narvik (mountainous region), Trondheim, Lyngenfjord, Senja, Vesteralen, and the Lofoten Islands.
Norway is often regarded as the best place to see the northern lights as the auroral activity is unique and spellbinding. The chances of viewing the Auroras are quite high and one need not wait for long to see them.
4. Northern Lights in Canada
Northern Lights in Canada can be seen all year round. From October to March, the hours of darkness are the highest in Canada. The viewing of the Northern Lights is known to be the best during the winter months in Canada.
A trip to Canada in the summer months to the southern provinces in Canada would be an awesome destination to see the Northern Lights. The months between September and March are the best time in Canada to see the Northern Lights.
Few Places to See the Northern Lights in Canada
2. Northwestern Territories
4. The Canadian Rockies
The Canadian province of Yukon is in the North part of Canada. The Northern lights in this part of Canada are visible throughout the year but to see the auroras clearly, the night must be dark and clear.
Winter is the right time to visit Yukon as this Canadian province enjoys midnight sun during the summer months. The timing would be around 10 pm and 11 pm. The best places to see the Auroral activity at Yukon, Canada would be Campbell, Blonde, Kluane, Watson Lake Region, and the Whitehorse Region.
You can watch the Northern Lights whilst riding a dog sled or while visiting different places in Ontario. A scintillating ride of a lifetime pulled by a majestic husky will help you reach the perfect spot to view the dazzling display of the Northern Lights.
The Northwest Territories in Canada have some of the world’s best displays of the Northern Lights. The Auroras are unique and spectacular with brighter colors, such as the green and red lights, longer periods of auroral activity, and the movements are intricate and magical in this part of Canada.
The Auroras appear nearly over 200 nights of the year in this Canadian territory. The reason Northwest Territories in Canada have the longest and most frequent appearance of Northern Lights is due to its perfectly placed location under the Earth’s band of auroral activity.
In addition to its clear night skies and humidity levels being low, Canada’s Northwest Territory is the best place to see the Northern Lights. The cities in the Northwest territories to see the polar lights are Yellowknife and the not-so-famous remote city, Tuktoyaktuk.
Another city in Canada that is exactly located in Auroral Oval is a quaint town called the Churchill. A Polar Bear Capital of the world, Churchill and the Northern Lights can be seen for 300 nights in a year. Visit Churchill, Canada between June to September and October to November to experience the Aurora Borealis.
You can find special great structures such as Aurora Domes and the LEED Silver facility constructed exclusively to experience the awe-inspiring lights in action.
A 360-degree view of the sky at the Aurora Pod enables its visitors to experience the Northern lights in all their glory. You need to either wake up early or stay up late at Churchill if you want a good view of the Northern Lights.
One of the best places in Canada to see the Northern Lights at lower latitudes would be the Canadian Rocky Mountains (The Banff National Park and the Jasper National Park). You must watch out for the weather forecast if you want to view the Northern Lights in this part of Canada.
Photography enthusiasts are generally encouraged to travel to the Canadian Rockies as the environment is congenial and can capture some best moments of the Aurora Borealis.
The other locations in Canada are Nunavut and Quebec. Nunavut is a remote destination at Iqaluit, Canada that has some good spots to see the night show in September and October.
Northern parts of the Canadian province are an ideal place to view the Auroras than the southern parts of Canada. Please ensure travel plans are made once you are sure that the weather forecast is favorable to view the Northern Lights
5. Northern Lights in North America
Although Norway, Finland, and Iceland are popular destinations to see the Northern Lights, there are quite a few surprising good places in North America where you can view the glimmering light display too.
Appropriate Places in North America to See the Northern Lights
1. Fairbanks, Alaska
Fairbanks is an exceptional arctic location to enjoy the northern light display as it is primarily placed under the concentration of Auroral activity. Alaska is considered the next best destination to Finland to view the Auroras. If you are keen to visit Fairbanks, Alaska, you need to research the weather forecast of the place and there is a 90 percent chance to see the Aurora Borealis during a 3-day stay at Fairbanks, Alaska.
The right season to look for the Auroras in Idaho would be between September to March. The right time to look for light displays would be 22:00 hours and 02:00 hours.
The right places to view the polar lights would be at the Panhandle National Forest and the Heyburn State Park. The solar storms in crystal clear skies of Idaho are both magnificent and soul-searching.
The viewing of Northern Lights in Minnesota is an experience that will force you to come back over and over again. The skies in Minnesota are clear and the place is largely pollution-free. Many areas of Minnesota are naturally dark which makes the Auroras appear like a beautiful flowing river. The magical lights are complete with awesome colors of glorious greens, posh purples, and majestic reds.
Cook County at Minnesota offers its visitors an awesome display of the northern lights coupled with the Milky way that shines onto the Lake Superior at Gunflint Trail. Voyageurs National Park has an International Dark Sky Park that enables visitors to watch the spell-binding night show.
Michigan Headlands International Dark Sky Park is one of the best places to view the Northern lights in Michigan. Some of the factors that make viewing the amazing Auroras easier in Michigan are due to its strategic latitude and light pollution being very low.
The Headlands International Dark Sky Park does not allow its visitors to camp, but since it is open all year round, it is a place frequented by photographers, amateur astronomers, and all tourists.
The phenomenon of the Northern lights is undoubtedly awe-inspiring. The solar lights are unpredictable as the weather, so one may get disappointed but do not lose heart.
There will be a time when the lights will be visible. So, putting an effort to view the lights would be an added advantage. If you get to witness the magic of watching the magnetic fields, an incredible display of lights on a clear night sky is nothing short of a miracle.
The lights dance as though it was choreographed. Every spectacle of light display gives us a feeling that the God of the Universe is watching all. Thereby, truly having this in your bucket list of things to see at least once is a must as the Northern lights transport you into a galaxy of the unknown.