The northern lights, or aurora borealis, offer an entrancing, dramatic, magical display that fascinates all who see it. The Creation of the Aurora Borealis. What causes this dazzling natural phenomenon?
At the centre of the sun, the temperature is 15 million degrees Celsius. As the temperature on its surface rises and falls, the sun boils and bubbles. Particles escape from the star from the sunspot regions on the surface, hurtling particles of plasma, known as solar wind, into space. It takes these winds around 40 hours to reach Earth. When they do, they can cause the dramatic displays known as the aurora borealis.
Aurora Borealis stem from when large numbers of electrons, originating from the sun, stream in toward the Earth along its magnetic field and collide with air particles. The air then lights up in a similar manner to what happens in a fluorescent light tube, around 100 kilometres above the earth.
It is most common to see green lights, though a reddish glow that appears like sunrise is also sometimes visible, specifically in Scandinavia.
The weather conditions on the sun and earth determine whether or not the aurora can be seen. When visible, the lights can be seen up to 400 kilometres away on the horizon, depending on weather conditions.
The Best Time to See the Aurora Borealis
The best time to see the northern lights from anywhere around or above the Arctic Circle (which lies near the towns of Rovaniemi, Finland and Bodø, Norway) is anytime between September and late April. You’ll experience long winter nights here.
We associate the Aurora Borealis with dark, cold, winter nights, although this natural phenomenon happens all the time. It’s just harder to see in lighter conditions.
The further south in Scandinavia you go, the shorter the Aurora Borealis season will be.
The optimal time of night for the northern lights is 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
If you do not see the northern lights as expected even if the timing is right, locals recommend to simply wait for one to two hours. Nature tends to reward the most patient.
To forecast the northern lights, you need to know the location where you will be watching them. The forecast of the northern lights measures the expected geomagnetic activity on the so-called Kp index (1 to 10).
While activity is forecast year-round, the northern lights generally cannot be seen May through September. The visibility of the northern lights also depends on local weather conditions. Cloud cover will hide the northern lights even if the prediction points to a likely occurrence.
The Best Places to See the Aurora Borealis
The best places to see the northern lights are Alaska and northern Canada, but visiting these vast, open expanses is not always easy. Norway, Sweden and Finland also offer excellent vantage points.
To see this phenomenon, visit the auroral zone where the Northern Lights occur. Prime locations are the coasts of the Norwegian counties of Tromsø, Norway (near the North Cape), and Reykjavik, Iceland, even at the minimal level of northern lights activity. Out of all Nordic destinations, these places provide you with an optimal chance of seeing the famous phenomenon.
If you don’t want to go that far north, the next-best location to see the northern lights is the region between the Finnish town Rovaniemi and the Norwegian town Bodø. From here, you
Auroras occur not only on Earth but also on other worlds in our solar system.
The gas giants in our solar system (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) each have thick atmospheres and strong magnetic fields, and each has auroras.
The sunspots and solar storms that cause the most magnificent displays of the northern lights occur roughly every 11 years. The solar cycle peaked in 2013, but it was the weakest solar maximum in a century.
The auroras in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere are called the aurora borealis. Their southern counterpart, which lights up the Antarctic skies, is known as the aurora australis.
The colours most often associated with the aurora borealis are pink, green, yellow, blue, violet, and occasionally orange and white. Typically, when the particles collide with oxygen, yellow and green are produced. Interactions with nitrogen produce red, violet, and occasionally blue colours.
For millennia, the lights have been the source of speculation, superstition and awe. Cave paintings in France thought to date back 30,000 years have illustrations of the natural phenomenon.
In more superstitious times, the northern lights were thought to be a harbinger of war or destruction, before people really understood what causes them. Many classic philosophers, authors and astronomers, including Aristotle, Descartes, Goethe and Halley, refer to the northern lights in their work.
„If solar winds have stirred far off in the velvety night, then showers of light, gold and violet, rose and green, paint the sky.“