The Northern Lights are real. It’s one of the most spectacular natural shows on our planet, and yet it’s still relatively unknown to many people. Could you tell me if the auroras are dangerous? Can the auroras be seen with the naked eye? Do the northern lights make any sound? How cold should it be to see the northern lights?
If you haven’t been able to answer some of the questions, do not worry. In this article, we tell you what causes the Northern Lights and we will debunk some of the most believed myths about the Northern Lights.
In the last years, Aurora trips have become more accessible and popular, and seeing Northern Lights is now on many traveler’s bucket list.
As a professional landscape photographer, I have a long experience “chasing” the Aurora in many countries around the world. However, I asked myself some of the following questions before seeing them for the first time.
My goal in this article is to explain what exactly are the Northern Lights in an easy way and reply to some of the most frequent asked questions I received related to the Aurora Borealis. Are you ready to know how the Northern Lights are made?
- What are the northern lights?
- What causes the Northern Lights?
- How to see northern lights?
- When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
- Where are the best places to see the Northern Lights?
- Other frequently asked questions about the Northern Lights
What are the northern lights?
The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, is an astronomical natural phenomenon consisting of displays of lights across the earth’s night sky, mostly visible at the highest latitudes of our planet.
Specifically, the northern lights are the lights that are produced when loaded particles (cosmic radiation) impact against the oxygen and nitrogen atoms present in our magnetosphere.
Therefore, the northern lights are the result of billions of energized molecules that emit small flashes of light when they hit our planet, visible only at night.
What causes the northern lights?
The Northern Lights are formed when particles emerging from the sun collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. These particles will be dragged towards the poles due to the magnetosphere, as if they were magnets, and in their wake, they will collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms producing flashes of light.
The solar activity that form the northern lights causes the sun to emit these constantly charged particles like flares and sunspots. This plasma travels from the sun to the space through the solar wind. If solar activity increases and the sun expels more particles than usual, what we know as solar storms are produced.
During solar storms, we can see strong displays of northern lights made of large groups of solar particles, like Coronal Mass Ejections (CME).
How to see the Northern lights?
In a nutshell, this is the best way to see Northern Lights:
- Visit any Northern Lights destination by your own or hiring one of the best Northern Lights packages in the World.
- Plan your trip during the Aurora season.
- Check the Aurora and cloud forecast.
- Visit locations away from light pollution, if possible.
- Start looking at the North.
The best time to see North Lights is during the Aurora season, that is, from late August to Mid-April in the Northern Hemisphere and from May to September in the Southern hemisphere.
You cand find more in-depth information in this article on when to see Northern Lights.
The best places to see Northern Lights are those in the Auroral zone; it’s an area located at a high latitude where Northern Lights visibility is more frequent.
In the sub-Auroral zone, the area below the Auroral zone, you can also see Northern Lights, but you’ll need stronger solar activity.
I wrote a thorough article just about the best places to see Northern Lights in the world.
What do the northern lights look like?
Northern Lights look depend on solar activity. When the activity is low, the most common Aurora type is a glow similar to a thin cloud. The most common shapes of Northern Lights look like arcs, that can become more unsettled as the activity increases.
Other common Aurora shapes are bands, rays, or needles.
The rarest type of Northern Lights are coronas; They usually happen under high periods of activity like solar storms and show different colors and long lines.
what color are the northern lights?
The Northern Lights show different colors depending on the gases with which the solar particles collide. The most frequent Aurora colors are green, yellow, lime, blue, purple, pink, and red.
The most common Aurora color, green, is associated with the impact of solar particle with oxygen atoms at an altitude from 75 to 150 miles.
Blue, purple, and pink are rarer to see and are associated with solar particles colliding with nitrogen atoms. These impacts occur at an altitude below 75 miles. Yellow and lime can be seen under higher periods of activity and are a mix of green and blue.
Red is the rarest color to see. It’s associated with solar particles impacting oxygen atoms but at a higher altitude above 150 miles.
To check the Northern Lights forecast for tonight, the best prediction is the 30-minute forecast by the space administration NOAA:
Other Northern Lights FAQ
How do the northern lights appear?
Northern Lights usually appear as a constant oval of light from the north.
As the activity increases, especially in periods of high solar activity, Northern Lights can appear southwards, covering the entire sky.
How often are northern lights visible?
Northern Lights visibility is completely related to solar activity, and this is related at the same time to the solar cycle.
The sun follows an 11-year cycle with a period of higher activity in the middle called solar maximum, and a period of lower activity at the beginning and the end called solar minimum. Although during the solar maximum the northern lights are more frequent, they can also be seen during the solar minimum.
Do the northern lights happen every night?
Northern Lights don’t happen every night, but this depends on the solar cycle.
According to the statistics from Spaceweather, in some years of solar maximum like 2012 or 2013, there were Northern Lights every night, while in years related to a solar minimum like 2009, there were Northern Lights only for 105 nights.
Is 2020 a good year to see northern lights?
2020 is a year related to a Solar minimum, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t see Northern Lights.
Simply, in 2020, there will be fewer stronger displays of Northern Lights like coronal mass ejections, and Northern Lights will be extremely rare at lower latitudes.
At higher latitudes, you’ll have chances of seeing Northern Lights in 2020 even though it’s a year falling in a solar minimum cycle.
are northern lights guaranteed?
Northern lights are not guaranteed. Even if you’re at a high latitude during the Aurora season and there is some solar activity, the forecast sometimes fails.
Take always the Aurora forecast with a pinch of salt, but know how to read the Northern lights prediction to increase your chances.
Considering the solar activity and according to the statistics, the best month to see the Northern Lights are those in the equinoxes; September and March, especially during the last two weeks of these months.
The best countries to see Northern Lights are those located in the Auroral Zone, like Iceland, Norway, Canada, USA (Alaska), Finland, Sweden, Greenland, or Russia.
- When and where to see Northern Lights in Iceland
- When and where to see Northern Lights in Norway
- When and where to see Northern Lights in Canada
How do northern lights look like with the naked eye?
You can perfectly see Northern Lights with the naked eye. When the aurora is faint, camera sensors can capture more details and colors than our eye, but under active displays, Northern Lights are visible with the naked eye.
In my experience, the only different color I see different is purple, which looks more like a white/grey color to the naked eye.
Can you see Northern lights during the day?
The Northern lights occur during any time of the day, but Northern lights visibility is limited to the hours of darkness. The Aurora season is determined by this factor.
Can you see Northern Lights with clouds?
For Northern lights visibility, you also need clear skies. If there are thick clouds in the sky, you won’t see any Aurora on the Sky.
Make sure you check the cloud forecast on a local site or on a general website like Windy.com.
Can you see the Northern Lights with a full moon?
You can see northern lights with the full moon. In fact, if you like photography it is a good time to photograph the aurora, since you can shoot with lower ISOs avoiding digital noise.
However, this only applies to large solar storms, since if the aurora is weak, the moonlight will make it invisible.
The best short term and long term Nothern Lights forecast is the KP-index. This index goes from 0 to 9, and even though it’s not 100% accurate, it’s the best indicator to predict the Aurora.
Another short-term Aurora prediction is the NOAA Auroral Oval forecast.
You can find more info on this article about Northern Lights forecast.
What is the Northern Lights forecast right now?
According to NOAA, this is the current Aurora forecast:
You can photograph Northern Lights; the basics you need are a digital camera allowing manual settings, a bright lens, and a tripod to shoot a long exposure to capture the Aurora. These are the best cameras and lenses for Northern Lights photography.
You can check the best Northern Lights camera settings here.
Are northern lights dangerous?
Radioactive particles from the sun are extremely dangerous, but the magnetosphere protects us, diverting the trajectory of these particles and projecting them towards the poles.
This solar activity is very dangerous for astronauts out of space since they’re out of the Earth’s magnetic field protection. However, the northern lights are not dangerous thanks to the natural protection of our planet.
Without the magnetosphere, we couldn’t see northern lights; and we could neither exist either. The northern lights are a reminder that the Earth protects us.
The solar particles that cause the northern lights can alter the Earth’s magnetic field, producing interruptions in satellites, compasses and power plants. These are the most common consequences of the northern lights.
Do the northern lights make any sound?
Scientific studies demonstrated that Northern Lights make some snap and crackle sounds during strong displays from above 230 feet (70 meters).
However, without scientific instruments, hearing sounds from Northern Lights are very unlikely, and most of the people claiming to have heard these sounds are just legends.
Do you need cold to see Northern Lights?
The solar activity causing the Aurora and temperatures are not related.
However, aurora borealis and low temperatures are often associated since it is more likely to see Northern Lights at high latitudes in the months with more darkness (winter).
From experience, I know that you can see northern lights with warm temperatures at the end of spring or early autumn at mid-latitudes, or if there are strong solar storms that produce visible northern lights at low latitudes.
Can you see the Northern Lights from a plane?
You can perfectly see the Northern Lights from a plane. Actually, your chances are higher than from the ground, since you’ll have clear skies 100% guaranteed.
Are northern lights and aurora borealis the same thing?
Northern Lights and Aurora Borealis are the same thing. This natural event is also known as “Aurora Polaris.”
When the display of lights takes place in the Southern hemisphere, the event is called “Southern Lights” or “Aurora Australis.”
what do northern lights mean?
The original and scientific name of the Northern Lights is Aurora Borealis.
The name Aurora Borealis was coined by Galileo Galilei in the XVII century, taking the names of the Roman goddess of dawn (Aurora) and the Greek god of the north winds (Boreas).
What is the legend of the northern lights?
Northern Lights have been the source of many myths and legends since ancient times.
Some of the most popular are:
- Most of the Eskimo ethnical groups in North America and Greenland believed that Northern Lights were the spirits of the dead people.
- Scandinavian settlers like in those belonging to the Norse culture believed that they were a bridge connecting the earth and the home of the viking gods.
- In some European areas where Northern Lights are just seen very rarely under strong displays, they believed that the Aurora was the omen of something bad like famine or war.
- In modern times, some sailors like the Swedish believed that Northern Lights were a sign of a good fishing day.