Look Up!

You need to see the most incredible light show in the night sky this winter

The greatest show on Earth is on.

by Kate S. Petersen
Originally Published: 

It happens in a flash: The Sun ejects searing, electrified particles out into space. They travel at millions of miles per hour — until they are caught up in the Earth’s magnetic field and funneled into the polar regions at a furious pace.

To us here on Earth, this terrible cataclysm is entirely silent. But it is not invisible.

As the particles collide with our atmosphere, a cacophonous array of color appears in our skies, emanating from the poles. Blues, greens, purples, and pinks flash, flow, and ripple across the night sky. They can appear and disappear quickly, or linger for hours. Either way, the aurora is a treasured sight to behold.

As the northern latitudes of Earth enter winter, the aurora borealis — the northern lights — begins to grace the sky.

Here's everything you need to know about this incredible natural display, how to see them, and when you need to look up.

What are the Northern Lights?

The northern lights, also called the aurora borealis, is the name given to the colorful, celestial light displays famous across the northern latitudes.

They are most commonly seen in Northern Canada, Alaska, Northern Europe, and Russia.

Aurora Borealis at Atigun Pass in Alaska

Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon / Getty Images

What causes the Northern Lights?

The northern lights stem directly from the Sun's core, which is powered by intense nuclear activity. Periodically, this activity boils over and streams of electrically charged particles called plasma are released from the Sun and shot out into space. Some of them make their way to our planet. As they pummel the Earth's magnetic field, they get funneled into the Earth’s atmosphere at the poles.

“When [the plasma] reaches… the gas molecules in our atmosphere, it basically hits them, excites them, and makes them light up in those colors,” Rona Oran, a computational space physicist at MIT, tells Inverse.

The different colors are created by different energetic states being initiated in different molecules.

“It's mostly nitrogen and oxygen that emit the lights,” Oran says.

Northern lights at Mt. Ulfarsfell, Iceland

Arctic-Images / Getty Images

Why are they called the Northern Lights?

According to NASA, the aurora borealis was coined by Galileo Galilei in 1619 A.D. He named them after the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora. Other sources accredit the French philosopher and contemporary of Galileo, Pierre Gassendi, with coining the name, however.

But the earliest recorded sighting of the aurora seems to have occurred in 2600 B.C.E. — according to NASA, there is a Chinese text from the time that states: "Fu-Pao, the mother of the Yellow Empire Shuan-Yuan, saw strong lightning moving around the star Su, which belongs to the constellation of Bei-Dou, and the light illuminated the whole area."

A drawing of the aurora from 1570 A.D., a few decades prior to Galileo's sightings, shows the phenomenon as wax candles lit above the clouds.

Historical drawing of the aurora thought to date to 1570 A.D.


Why is the aurora more frequent in winter?

The best time to see the aurora borealis is during the winter months, but in reality, the northern lights don't occur more often during any one season. Rather, the frequency and intensity of the lights is driven by the behavior of the Sun.

“The seasonal variations that we see on Earth are just because that's where it's dark enough to see them,” Jodie Ream, an observational space physicist at MIT, tells Inverse.

This is also part of the reason why the aurora tends to light up the skies nearest to the poles. In addition to being the area where the particles get funneled, both poles go through long stretches of darkness during the winter months, providing the best viewing conditions to see the lights.

If the Sun's activity is strong enough, the lights will travel further through our atmosphere from the north pole — if it is dark enough, people living in the Arctic and immediately beyond it will have the chance to see them.

“When the Sun is more active, you will have stronger northern lights, or they will show up at lower latitudes,” Oran says.

Do the northern lights have any effect on Earth?

The northern lights aren't harmful to Earth, but the solar plasma that creates them can and does affect technological infrastructure.

Because of this potential for harm, there’s an entire industry dedicated to tracking “space weather,” the electromagnetic conditions in space around the Earth, usually driven by the Sun, Ream says.

“It can disrupt communications. It can charge pipelines,” Ream says. “One of the big effects it has on GPS, it can mess up the GPS tracking that we use in our everyday lives.

Image of the aurora over the Indian Ocean taken from International Space Station on September 17, 2011


Are there Southern Lights?

Yes. The southern lights are called the "aurora australis," and they are created in the same way as northern lights. The land near the north pole is significantly more populated than the land nearest the south pole, so more people see the northern lights. In reality, the southern lights happen just as frequently, and they are just as spectacular.

This image of the aurora australis (southern lights) was taking by the IMAGE satellite on September 11, 2005


Do other planets have auroras?

The short answer is yes. University of Leicester space scientist Jonathan Nichols, tells Inverse: “Any planet with a large magnetic field and a significant atmosphere has auroras. In our solar system, that's Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.”

Aurora-like activity has also been reported on Mars, Nichols says. This is surprising, because our neighboring planet lacks a strong global magnetic field. But “it has little bits of magnetic field which can produce kind of aurora-like effects,” Nichols says.

Given the phenomena is so common in our solar system, it stands to reason exoplanets could also have auroras, too. In the future, we may be able to detect exoplanet auroras by analyzing radio signals, Nichols says.

The aurora on Jupiter. This is a composite image, with Jupiter shot in visible wavelengths and the aurora captured in ultraviolet wavelengths

NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester)

Aurora-like activity has also been reported on Mars, Nichols says. This is surprising, because our neighboring planet lacks a strong global magnetic field. But “it has little bits of magnetic field which can produce kind of aurora-like effects,” Nichols says.

Given the phenomena is so common in our solar system, it stands to reason exoplanets could also have auroras, too. In the future, we may be able to detect exoplanet auroras by analyzing radio signals, Nichols says.

Aurora at both poles of Saturn. Image captured in ultraviolet wavelengths by Hubble Space Telescope


How to see the aurora in the night sky

To see the aurora borealis, you need to be in the right place at the right time and have the correct viewing conditions.

The best time to see the northern lights are on dark, clear nights in the winter months and close to a New Moon. Generally, from September to April are the best viewing months. To ensure you get the best from this natural light show, you should start gazing upwards several hours after sundown. You don't need to face a certain direction as the northern lights tend to be visible throughout the entire sky.

If you live in a crowded city like Stockholm, it is best to get as high up as possible in order to minimize light pollution. You also want to limit any light coming from screens of electronic devices or flashlights, and allow your eyes to get accustomed to the darkness for around 30 minutes before you look up.

These are some of the best places to see the aurora borealis:

  • Fairbanks, Alaska: The city of Fairbanks forecasts its aurora activity with the help of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. You can track the best times to see the aurora here.
  • Tromsø, Norway: This city is located above the Arctic circle in the "auroral oval," the place where you have the best chance of seeing the northern lights. The Norway tourist board has a site dedicated to forecasting the lights, so you can plan the best times to go.
  • Shetland and Orkney, Scotland: These island chains often see their winter night skies light up with the "Merry Dancers," or northern lights.
  • Lapland, Finland: Home to Santa Claus and a go-to for aurora chasers. The northern most part of Finland, Lapland lies within the Arctic circle. According to the Finland tourism board, the northern lights appear every other clear night in the north of the country.
  • Lapland, Sweden: Much like the Finnish Lapland, Swedish Lapland is also northern enough to have excellent northern lights viewing opportunities.
  • Reykjavik, Iceland: You don't have to go far outside of town to escape the city lights in this sparsely populated country, but when the aurora is strong, you can even catch the lights within the city limits.
  • Yellowknife, Canada: This remote town of 20,000 people in the Northwest Territories of Canada boasts aurora sightings 240 days a year.
  • Upper Peninsula, Michigan: The further north you travel, the more likely you are to see the aurora on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The shoreline of Lake Superior is a great place to see the lights in a beautiful natural setting during the peak months of April, October, and November.
  • Saadjärv, Estonia: This is a little off the beaten trail, but may be a less crowded option if you want to see the aurora. Estonia has a small population and lots of wild nature. You can see the lights from Saadjärve, a village on the shore of Lake Saadjärv.

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