What Are the Northern Lights and What Causes Them?

The Northern Lights are one of the most spectacular natural shows on our planet, and yet, not many people know much about what they are or what causes them to happen. The Northern Lights look and feel magical – bright natural lights dancing in the night sky just look like something out of a fantasy movie; however, the science behind them is easy to understand, and that is what I’ll go through in this article.

What are the Northern Lights, and what causes them? Can you see the Northern Lights with the naked eye? Is the Aurora dangerous? Keep reading and find out the answer to all of these questions, and more!

Bright Northern Lights reflected on a tidal pond in a beach in Norway with some mountains in the background

What are the Northern Lights and what causes them?

Seeing the Northern Lights has become increasingly popular over the past few as many travelers are adding the spectacle to their bucket lists. Trips to see the Northern Lights are also in high demand thanks to the easily accessible information about this phenomenon.

As a professional landscape astrophotographer, I’ve been chasing the Aurora over the past decade all around the world. However, I started in the same place you are right now, being curious and asking myself these exact questions.

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 what makes the Northern Lights happen?

What are the northern lights?

The Northern Lights are an astronomical natural phenomenon consisting of displays of lights across the Earth’s night sky, and they are mostly visible at the highest latitudes of our planet. The Northern Lights appear mostly green in the sky, but can also show blue, pink, and red lights.

As a simple answer, the Northern Lights happen when high-energy particles from the sun (solar wind) collide with the oxygen and nitrogen atoms present in our magnetosphere. The energy released from this interaction is what produces the light we see in the sky.

Bright green Northern Lights cover the night sky above a coast scene in Norway

What are the Northern Lights?

What causes the northern lights?

The Northern Lights happen when protons and electrons emerging from the sun collide with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere. These particles are diverted toward 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 sun constantly emits charged particles in the form of plasma. This plasma travels through space and it’s called the solar wind. This emission isn’t always constant; on occasions, solar activity may increase, causing solar flares and sun spots. When these conditions are met, we experience what we call solar storms.

During solar storms, we can see strong displays of Northern Lights made of large groups of solar particles, or Coronal Mass Ejections (CME).

what causes the Northern Lights

Northern Lights formation explained

How to see the Northern lights?

Seeing the Northern Lights can be challenging if you don’t know the basics. This spectacle can be elusive, and even the most experienced Northern Lights “chasers” usually go home empty-handed. But don’t let that stop you! Learning how to see the Northern Lights and chasing them is addictive, and with the right gear, you can get some breathtaking shots!

Follow these simple steps, and you’ll be well-equipped to start finding your first Northern Lights:

    • Find out about the best season to see the Northern Lights: The Aurora Borealis can only be seen at night and at high latitudes; for this reason, some months are better than others.
    • Visit any Northern Lights destination: You can visit on your own or book one of the best Northern Lights packages in the world.
    • Check the Aurora and cloud forecast
    • Visit locations away from light pollution, if possible, also try to avoid a full moon.
    • Looking north: if the display is strong enough, you can see the Northern Lights looking almost at any direction, but otherwise, the most likely place you’ll see them is by looking north.
What are northern lights and what causes them

Steps to see the Northern Lights

When is the best time 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 for the Southern Lights. This is because at the latitudes the Aurora can be seen, it only gets dark enough during those specific months.

Three photographers photograph the Northern Lights under a dark night on a beach in Norway

Learning when to see the Northern Lights is crucial to increase your chances of success

You can find more in-depth information in this article on when to see Northern Lights.

Where is the best place to see the 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.

In the following list, you can find the best places to see the Northern Lights:

The Auroral Oval Zone

The Auroral Oval Zone

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 and which atoms collide with protons and electrons that enter the atmosphere. The most common shapes of  Northern Lights are arcs that can become more irregular as the activity increases, forming pillars, bands, and needles.

The most sought-after type of Northern Lights is called coronas, which is when the Northern Lights are right above your head and look like a beam of light.

Northern Lights shape

Northern Lights Corona shape

What color are the northern lights?

The Northern Lights’ color also depends on solar activity and which atoms interact with the solar wind. When the activity is low, the most common Aurora type is a faint green glow, similar to a thin cloud. When the activity increases, it is possible to see brighter greens, reds, pinks, and even blue.

Green, is associated with the impact of solar particles with oxygen atoms at an altitude from 75 to 150 miles.

A bunch of people stand under the night sky contemplating and photographing the Northern Lights

Green, yellow, lime, purple and red Aurora during a strong G2 solar storm in Iceland

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.

Other Northern Lights FAQ

To check the Northern Lights forecast for tonight, the best predictor is the 30-minute forecast by the space administration NOAA

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.

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 2024 we are approaching the solar maximum of the current cycle.

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

In 2024, we are approaching the peak of the current solar cycle, so great auroral showswill be more and more frequent.

The Aurora Borealis will be more common at lower latitudes, as we already saw in 2023. There were two instances in 2023 where the Northern Lights were visible at lower latitudes, with sightings in uncommon places such as Arizona and northern Italy! Everything points to 2024 being another stunning year to see Northern Lights.

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 grain 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Scientific studies have proven 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.

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.

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.

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.”

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).

The Northern Lights have been the source of many myths and legends since ancient times.

Some of the most popular are:

  • Most of the indigenous ethnical groups in the northern regions of 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.


Whether you know what the Northern Lights are or not, nothing can take away from the fact that they are a mesmerizing spectacle to see. In this article, I’ve covered all the basics you need to know about what the Northern Lights are, what they look like, where to see them, etc. If you want to learn more about Northern Lights, you are in the right place because I’ve written plenty of articles over the past few years. You can start by learning how to photograph the Northern Lights or continue reading any of the related articles below.

If you have any further questions, make sure to leave them in the comment section below, and I’ll be more than happy to answer them.

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Dan is a professional landscape and astro photographer, photography educator, and co-founder of Capture the Atlas. His base camp is in Nevada, USA, but he spends long periods exploring and photographing new locations around the world. Apart from shooting the Milky Way, the Northern Lights, and any breathtaking landscape, he enjoys leading photo tours to some of the most photogenic places on Earth. You can find more about Dan here.
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