Even the most beautiful sunset doesn’t have anything on the Northern Lights. Beautiful flashing and swirling lights in shades of pink, green, blue, violet, yellow and red can be seen across the night sky, creating an impressionistic canvas in the night.
This beautiful display over the North Pole is actually named the “Aurora borealis,” though it is commonly known as the “Northern Lights.”
What looks like nature’s own laser light show is actually the result of gases and other particles colliding and exploding. Gas from the Earth’s atmosphere collides with charged particles from the Sun’s atmosphere that are blown toward the Earth on a solar wind.
Typically, particles from the sun would be deflected by the Earth’s atmospheric shield. However, the magnetic field is weaker at the poles (there are also “southern lights”), allowing the particles to enter and to collide with the gas from the Earth’s atmosphere.
The colors of the Northern Lights are a result of the different gases that are colliding with these particles from the sun. Oxygen particles produce green and yellow lights (at about 60 miles high) and brownish-red. All-red lights are rare, and they are produced by oxygen found as high as 200 miles above the earth. Nitrogen particles produce blue or purplish-red lights. The most common type of lights you will see are yellowish-green and create a hazy glow rather than distinct streaks of light.
Best Times and Places to Watch
Unless you want to go all the way to the Arctic, the best places to see the Northern Lights are typically found in Canada. The Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories are all good options. In America, you can go to Alaska to see them (though Alaska’s pretty much in Canada anyway).
If you want a really good seat for the show, you’ll have to go a little further. Tromso, Norway, and Reykjavik, Iceland, are said to provide the best opportunities for seeing the lights. If you go during the Polar Nights, you’ll get an even better view. The Polar Nights are periods of 24-hour darkness, and they can usually last 2 to 3 months. It usually happens around December or January, depending on the location.
Typically, you can see the Northern Lights in any of these locations between September and April. However, between October and March provides the best opportunities.
The middle of the night is the best time to start your watch. Think any time after midnight and until just before dawn. Dark, still nights offer the best opportunities.