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Understanding Northern Lights

Understanding Northern Lights

What are Northern Lights

Northern Lights are natural phenomenon that can paint the sky in unearthly, surreal color. They look somewhat similar to sunset at night but appear occasionally as arcs or spirals following the earth’s magnetic field. They are often light green in color with the tinge of pink. Strong eruptions also have violet and white colors.

Red northern lights are rare, but can sometimes be observed at lower latitudes. 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.

How northern lights are formed

The temperature above the surface of the sun is millions of degrees Celsius. At this temperature, collisions between gas molecules are frequent and explosive. Free electrons and protons are thrown from the sun’s atmosphere by the rotation of the sun and escape through holes in the magnetic field. Blown towards the earth by the solar wind, the charged particles are largely deflected by the earth’s magnetic field.

However, the earth’s magnetic field is weaker at either pole and therefore some particles enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles. These collisions emit light that we perceive as the dancing lights of the north.

When is the best time in the year to see the northern lights

Northern Lights can be only seen during period of intense darkness. In the most intense Northern Lights areas, the lights are sometimes observed in any season but chances are best when it is dark after 6pm, from late September to late March.

On a yearly basis, the Lights are at their peak around the time of the equinoxes, in September and March. The reasons for this trend aren’t fully known.

Factors that affect Northern Lights

  • Latitude: Northern Lights are affected by latitudes. They can be seen in only countries that lie above 66 degree north or below 66 degree south such as Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, Northern Norway and Sweden.
  • Time of the day: Northern Lights are most likely to be seen between 6pm and 1am. Within this time period ,the highest probability is between 10 p.m. and 11p.m. During the Polar night, aurorae can be observed as early as 4pm, and all through the night.
  • 11 year cycle: In the longer term, auroral displays are correlated with an 11-year cycle in sunspot activity. In other words, the more restless the sun, the more aurorae. However, at the most favorable latitudes, the Lights are still likely to be seen even at solar minimum. The last maximumin solar activity was in late 2013, with frequent Northern Lights displays likely for another two or three year after 2013.
  • Solar storms: Solar storms result in erratic displays of Northern Lights. It can lead to visible Northern Lights remarkably far South, if you are in an area with clear, transparent night skies.
  • Clear skies: Aurora occur very high up in the atmosphere in cloudless, clear skies. The weather is notably better towards the end of the Northern Lights season (February-March), than in the beginning. The weather is probably the most important success factor in the areas under the Northern Lights oval, where there are visible Northern Lights on up to 80% of all clear nights.

Tips for chasing the Northern Lights

If you are lucky to land in an Aurora-viewing country, there are some factors which can increase your chances of viewing the Northern Lights.

  • Firstly, one needs to be aware of the space weather. A good site for space weather information is operated by the (US)National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Another useful tool is NOAA’s test version of their OVATION Model. It predicts intensity and geographical location of the auroral oval based on current solar wind conditions and interplanetary magnetic field virtually in real time.
  • Northern Lights usually form about 100 km above the surface of the earth. This means that an eruption is visible over large tracts of land. In principle, all areas under the Northern Lights oval are good observation points. However, most of these areas are remote and inaccessible, and suffer harsh climatic conditions.
  • Hiring a local guide to view Northern Lights is worth your expense. A guide’s local knowledge can help in coping with the weather, finding good sites, choosing good routes, and avoiding close encounters with dangerous wildlife such as polar bears or musk oxen. Also, a guide or tour company will have vehicles and other equipment suitable for the conditions.

Where to watch the Northern Lights \ Aurora Borealis:

North America- Fairbanks, Yellowknife in Canada’s northwest territories, Churchill on Hudson’s Bay in Manitoba and Isle Royal National Park in Upper Michigan.

North Atlantic Islands– Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, Mývatn, Iceland: Berneray, Outer Hebrides

Europe- Tromso, Northern Norway, Alta, in Norway Jukkasjärvi, Northern Sweden, Kilpisjärvi, Inari and Utsjoki in Finnish Lapland  and the Kola Peninsula of Murmansk Oblast

Alankar Chandra

Alankar is the Founder & CEO of Wild Voyager, and a leading explorer and award winning nature photographer.

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