I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of and heard about the beautiful northern lights, but do you know why they occur and where to see them? Read below to find out!
What are the northern lights?
The northern lights are a spectacular display of colors created by the collisions of millions of electrically charged particles from the sun that are entering our atmosphere. The northern lights’ scientific term is Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south. The most common color you will see is a greenish-yellow (pictured below) but you can also see shades of red, yellow, green, blue and violet–similar to the colors of the rainbow!
What causes them to occur?
The sun is the reason we have the northern lights on Earth – it is also the reason we are alive! The lights are created when the gaseous particles of our own atmosphere collide with the electrically charged solar particles the sun blown towards the Earth in something called solar wind. The different colors of the northern lights are created from the type of gaseous particle the solar particles are colliding with in our atmosphere. For example the most commonly seen yellowish-green is the result of the solar particle colliding with oxygen molecules about 60 miles above Earth. Red (rarest) aurora is caused by a much higher altitude oxygen, and the blue/violet hues are caused by collisions with nitrogen.
Where are the best places to see them?
The aurora appear above Earth’s north and south magnetic poles. The Aurora Australis are very difficult to see since they primarily occur around Antarctica – not the easiest trip to take. The Aurora Borealis can be seen in an ovular shape around the highest latitudes. The best places to see them are as follows:
- Northwestern parts of Canada (the Yukon, Northwest Territories)
- Southern tip of Greenland
- Southern tip of Iceland
- Northern coast of Norway
- Siberia’s coastal waters ←(that sounds fun)
The best months to view them are when you get the most darkness per day (September through March) and it is important to travel to places that are far away from light pollution. One big reason I wanted to visit Iceland last year was to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. My cousin, a friend, and I drove out into Iceland’s dark countryside to see if we could chase the northern lights. The moon was brighter than I had ever seen that night, causing the sky to be quite lit. This made it difficult to see the deeper colors of the northern lights, but we did catch glimpses of that yellow-ish green color that is most frequently seen!
I look forward to seeing more northern lights in my lifetime. They are truly a magical display of art created by our beautiful planet.