The Northern Lights are real. They’re one of the most spectacular natural shows on our planet, and yet many people don’t know a lot about them. What causes the Aurora? Can you see the Northern Lights with the naked eye? is the Aurora dangerous? Do the Northern Lights make any sound?
If you don’t know the answer to some or all of these questions, don’t worry. In this article, we’ll tell you what causes the Northern Lights and debunk some of the most enduring myths about the Northern Lights.
Over the last few years, Aurora Borealis trips have become more accessible and popular, and seeing the Northern Lights is now on many travelers’ bucket lists.
As a professional landscape astrophotographer, I have a lot of experience “chasing” the Aurora in many countries around the world. However, I also asked myself some of these 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 to reply to some of the most frequently asked questions I receive related to the Aurora Borealis. Are you ready to learn how the Northern Lights are made?
- What are the northern lights?
- What causes the Northern Lights?
- How to see the 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 the Aurora Borealis, are an astronomical natural phenomenon consisting of displays of lights across the earth’s night sky, mostly visible at the highest latitudes of our planet.
Technically, the Northern Lights are the lights that are produced when loaded particles (cosmic radiation) collide with 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 are dragged towards the poles by the magnetosphere as if they were magnets, and in their wake, they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms producing flashes of light.
The solar activity that forms the Northern Lights causes the sun to emit these constantly charged particles, flares, and sunspots. This plasma travels from the sun to space through the solar wind. If solar activity increases and the sun expels more particles than usual, what we call solar storms are produced.
During solar storms, we can see strong displays of Northern Lights made of large groups of solar particles, or Coronal Mass Ejections (CME).
How to see the Northern lights?
In a nutshell, this is the best way to see the Northern Lights:
The best time to see the Northern 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 can find more in-depth information in this article on when to see Northern Lights.
The best places to see the Northern Lights are in the Auroral Zone. It’s an area located at a high latitude where the Northern Lights are more frequently visible.
In the sub-Auroral zone, the area below the Auroral zone, you can also see the Northern Lights, but you’ll need stronger solar activity.
I wrote a thorough article just on the best places to see Northern Lights in the world.
What do the northern lights look like?
The Northern Lights’ look depends 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 are arcs that can become more irregular as the activity increases.
Other common Aurora shapes are bands, rays, and needles.
The rarest type of Northern Lights is the corona. It usually occurs during high periods of activity, such as solar storms, and shows 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 particles 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 in 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 hitting oxygen atoms but at a higher altitude above 150 miles.
To check the Northern Lights forecast for tonight, the best predictor is the 30-minute forecast by the space administration NOAA:
Other Northern Lights FAQ
How do the northern lights appear?
The Northern Lights usually appear as a constant oval of light from the north.
As the activity increases, especially in periods of high solar activity, the Northern Lights can appear southwards, covering the entire sky.
How often are the northern lights visible?
Northern Lights visibility is completely related to solar activity, which is also connected 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.
Right now in 2022 we are starting the solar cycle number 25, and the sun should reach the solar activity peak by 2024/2025.
Do the northern lights happen every night?
The 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 out of the year
Is 2022 a good year to see the northern lights?
In 2022, the solar cycle number 25 begins to rise little by little, so great auroral shows like those that took place at the end of 2021 will be more and more frequent.
The Aurora Borealis will be more common at lower latitudes, although we will have to wait until 2023 and 2024 to begin to see them more often at that latitude.
are the northern lights guaranteed?
The 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.
Always take 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 months 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 the Northern Lights are those located in the Auroral Zone, such as Iceland, Norway, Canada, USA (Alaska), Finland, Sweden, Greenland, and 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 the northern lights look with the naked eye?
You can see the Northern Lights perfectly with the naked eye. When the Aurora is faint, camera sensors can capture more details and colors than our eye, but with active displays, the Northern Lights are visible with the naked eye.
In my experience, the only color I see differently is purple, which looks more like a white/grey color to the naked eye.
Can you see the Northern lights during the day?
The Northern Lights can 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 the 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 in 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 the 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 Northern 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 predictor is the NOAA Auroral Oval forecast.
You can find more info in 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 the Northern Lights; the basics you need are a digital camera that allows manual settings, a bright lens, and a tripod to shoot long exposure photography 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 the 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 in space, since they’re out of the Earth’s magnetic field protection. However, the Northern Lights are not dangerous to us thanks to the natural protection of our planet.
Without the magnetosphere, we couldn’t see the Northern Lights, and we couldn’t 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 the Northern Lights make some snap and crackle sounds during strong displays from above 230 feet (70 meters).
However, without scientific instruments, hearing sounds from the Northern Lights is very unlikely, and most people who claim to have heard these sounds are just telling stories.
Do you need cold to see the Northern Lights?
The solar activity that causes the Aurora and temperatures are not related.
However, the Aurora Borealis is often associated with low temperatures, since it is more likely to see the Northern Lights at high latitudes in the months with the most darkness (winter).
From experience, I know that you can see the Northern Lights in 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 see the Northern Lights perfectly from a plane. Actually, your chances are higher than from the ground, since you’ll have clear skies 100% guaranteed.
Are the northern lights and aurora borealis the same thing?
The 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 does “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?
The 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 the Northern Lights were the spirits of the dead.
- Scandinavian settlers, such as 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 the Northern Lights are seen very rarely, they believed that the Aurora was an omen of something bad, such as famine or war.
- In modern times, some sailors like the Swedish believed that the Northern Lights were a sign of a good fishing day.
I hope you now know what the Northern Lights are and what causes them. If you have any other questions on this topic, don’t hesitate to leave us a comment.