written by Betty Nguyen
I did not know what the Northern Lights were until I visited Iceland in 2009 and saw them for the first time. Although I enjoyed seeing the beautiful display of purple and green dancing lights, I still had no idea what caused them and where to see them besides Iceland. Here is a general guide on Northern Lights and where to see them.
WHAT ARE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as 'Aurora borealis' in the north and 'Aurora australis' in the south.
Auroral displays appear in many colors although pale green and pink are the most common. Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been reported.
WHAT CAUSES THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
The Northern Lights are actually the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.
WHERE ARE THE BEST PLACES TO WATCH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
Northern Lights can be seen in the northern or southern hemisphere. Because the phenomena occurs near the magnetic poles, auroral displays can also be seen over the southern tip of Greenland and Iceland, the northern coast of Norway and over the coastal waters north of Siberia. Southern auroras are not often seen as they are concentrated in a ring around Antarctica and the southern Indian Ocean.
The best places to watch them are areas that are not subject to 'light pollution'. Areas in the north, in smaller communities, tend to be best spots.
WHEN AND WHERE TO WATCH FOR THESE AURORAL DISPLAYS?
Winter in the north is generally a good season to view lights. I generally see them in September both in Iceland and Greenland. I've also seen them in Norway in December (Lofoten Islands). But you can also see them in other places like Canada, New Zealand, Alaska, and Wisconsin! The long periods of darkness and the frequency of clear nights provide many good opportunities to watch them. Usually the best time of night (on clear nights) to watch the Northern Lights is around local midnight.
NORTHERN LIGHTS TOURS
This article is sourced by the Northern Lights Centre in Canada.