Auroras On The Rise! Here’s Where To See The Next Dazzling Light Show

An active sun is just more fun.

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The Northern lights or aurora borealis illuminate the night sky at the beach in Grand Bend, Ontario,...

Stunning auroras decorated skies across the world this past weekend. The lights were the result of a burst of solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun. And this may be just the beginning: Over the next year and a half, we will likely see more such enchanting displays, thanks to the Sun’s new season of extreme weather.

Auroras are incredible displays of band-like structures called arcs that can stretch several thousand miles long and meander into finger-like curls. The phenomenon can be seen around the world. When viewed from the northern hemisphere, it's known as the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis; from the southern hemisphere, it's called the Southern Lights or the Aurora Australis.

Magnetospheric substorms will create more auroras over the next couple of years. Part of this is a natural flux. Scientists expect the Sun to burst bubbles of plasma as its magnetic field lines collapse every 11 years, trapping the superhot plasma and solar wind until it simply must pop. The Sun then sprays the Earth with more solar wind, which ultimately ignites the auroras. This current chapter, called Solar Cycle 25, is far exceeding predictions set in 2019. The upcoming auroras are an unexpected surprise.

Increased solar activity results in the rare Aurora Australis being visible in southerly areas of Australia. This image taken from Macleod in suburban Melbourne, Australia on May 12th 2024.

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How do auroras happen?

We can thank the Sun for this incredible light show. Auroras arise from an interplay between the Earth and the Sun. Our planet has a liquid outer core that, as it churns, generates a magnetic field larger than Earth itself. This region would be shaped like an apple cut in half, with field lines in space feeding back near the poles, but the solar wind pushes this magnetosphere. Instead, it is shaped like a water drop turned sideways, with the pointy end behind us.

But as the Sun now approaches its anticipated peak of activity in the summer of 2025, it releases more charged particles as unexpected blasts. The flows slam into the magnetosphere and interact with it, like ocean waves that crash against a shore and leave ripples behind.

The energy rides along Earth’s magnetic field lines, reaches this tail, then pulses forward and journeys towards Earth’s poles. The result is magical, capable of bringing a viewer to tears.

The northern lights as it reflects in the still water of North Pond in Smithfield, Maine on May 11, 2024.

Michael Seamans/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Auroras are typically mild events, and can be difficult to see. Human eyes have a hard time discerning colors within light during the night. But when there’s an energetic activation from the solar wind, auroras brighten up. These shows can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.

What does an aurora look like?

Inverse asked an aurora scientist and an aurora photographer to describe the display of an activated aurora. It’s a hard sight to relay, they both admit. But they got creative.

“It really is magical… the hairs on the back of your neck actually stand up a little bit, because you understand how big this is and how exciting it is,” Don Hampton, research faculty member at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, tells Inverse.

Having grown up in Texas, Hampton didn’t see his first show until his late 20s. “It was dark out, and one night I went out and watched the aurora and went, okay I got to study that. There’s no question about it!”

Kristvin Gudmundsson, a professional photographer, aurora tour guide, and creator of the Facebook group Aurora Hunters Iceland, had a similar experience. “It changes you, to say the least,” he tells Inverse.

If the aurora is directly overhead, it can quickly form into bizarre and complicated structures. “You see the greens dancing above you. And then all of a sudden, when you’re looking straight up, they sort of go into a corona, a crown above you. Then it just explodes,” Gudmundsson says. Hampton says he’s “had cases where you could take a book outside and actually read, it was just so bright.”

Auroras are captivating until the very end. “It’s like dust settling in the desert,” Gudmundsson says.

“People are just stunned by them,” he adds. “They just go breathless. I have seen people actually cry when they see them.”

Bright green is the most common color in an aurora arc’s verticality, sometimes described as a curtain. It appears when particles bombard the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, Hampton says. But when there’s a lot of energy, the particles can penetrate down further into the atmosphere. When they interact with nitrogen, the curtain can also glow reddish pink.

Magnetospheric substorms will create more auroras over the next couple of years.


Are auroras becoming more frequent?

There are now more of these displays, appearing sooner and farther south, and they are appearing in unexpected places.

“I think we’re going to definitely have more of these storms,” Hampton says.

Despite a dataset for sunspots that goes back centuries, which has provided a reliable backbone for scientists to make predictions about solar activity, current Solar Cycle 25 is turning out to be a surprise. The number of sunspots is actually twice as much as that prediction they had back in 2018 and 2019, according to Hampton. “So for whatever reason, they were thinking it would not be as active as a solar cycle. But it looks like it’s going to be a very active solar cycle.”

The broad effect that a strong solar wind has on Earth’s magnetosphere is called a geomagnetic storm. Auroras don’t need a geomagnetic storm in order to appear, but when the displays are especially bright, that was a likely catalyst. Geomagnetic storms are ranked within the planetary K (Kp) index, sort of like the Richter scale for earthquakes. And although there’s still more than two years until solar maximum, Earth has experienced two events at a level eight in the last month and a half. The maximum of the scale is a nine.

“We’re expecting 2025, 2026 to be very very active years,” Hampton says.

The storms can compress the magnetosphere, in turn expanding the region that usually sees auroras. “The Kp 8 storm generated auroras as far south as Arizona and New Mexico, off in the northern horizon. I expect the next three or four years are going to bring many more cases like this,” Hampton says.

Where can you see auroras?

The surest way to see auroras is to visit a place located at 67 degrees latitude or higher. The auroras can appear here even when there’s low geomagnetic activity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information.

This includes northern regions within Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. Gudmundsson says in Iceland, auroras have appeared with a Kp level as low as 2 or 3.

The Aurora Borealis appears in the sky on January 8, 2017 near Ester Dome mountain, about 10 miles west of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Lance King/Getty Images News/Getty Images

There’s less land mass at extreme latitudes in the southern hemisphere, so Antarctica prevails as the best option for auroral displays during the slow season. Tasmania and New Zealand also provide some opportunities.

Those more at leisure about seeing an aurora may catch a display, too, in the coming years. The Midwest may offer some good views. The auroral zone expanded towards the equator by a whopping 30 degrees latitude during the recent Kp 8 storm to have created auroras in the northern skies of the U.S. Southwest.

What is the best way to view an aurora?

Here are some professional tips on how to spot an aurora.

  1. Check the Kp index. NOAA’s live updates are a good place to start. The higher the number (and closer to red on the scale), the more chance of seeing auroras farther away from the poles.
  2. Find a clear sky with no city light. Hampton says that seeing stars is a good indication the spot will be solid for aurora gazing.
  3. Look towards your nearest pole. Find a place with a clear view of the north in the northern hemisphere or the south in the southern hemisphere.
  4. Have a smartphone ready. Gudmundsson and Hampton both say that phone cameras are sophisticated enough nowadays to detect something in the sky before the human eye does. If you’re in the Midwest, Southwest, or a place far from the usual auroral zone, the lights on the horizon might not look like anything out of the ordinary. To reach this place, though, a storm will likely have delivered enough energy so that particles interact with nitrogen to create the red colors. Hampton advises taking a picture of the northern horizon and seeing if anything shows up red.
  5. Travel at the end of winter. Places at extreme latitudes are very cold in winter, and there’s not much sunlight (if any at all). To visit Alaska, for instance, Hampton recommends traveling in March, when the day is more evenly split between daytime and night, and there are activities to do while you’re waiting for the Sun to set.

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