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The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are glowing bands, circles and streams of colored lights that sometimes appear in the northern latitudes. The southern hemisphere has similar light shows that are called Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights. Both Northern and Southern Lights are referred to collectively as Aurora Polaris. The lights can span the visible, infrared and ultraviolet spectrum, and vary in intensity, duration and extent. They can last a few minutes or all night; Northern Lights can also occur during the day, but sunlight makes them invisible.
The Northern Lights are caused by activity on the sun. Strong magnetic activity is continually taking place on the surface of the sun, and electrons and ions are constantly being thrown out into space. This 'plasma', called the solar wind, is ejected in all directions. It is only when a strong solar wind blows in our direction that Northern Lights occur.
Because electrons and ions are charged particles, they are influenced by the magnetic field of the earth, which sweeps them up as they approach and funnels them toward both poles. The particles spiral down the 'cone' of the magnetic field until they hit the atmosphere, where they interact with atmospheric gases to cause the lights in the sky.
The stronger the 'storm' on the surface of the sun, the more particles are ejected into space and potentially into our atmosphere. The more particles, the farther south the particles reach before being consumed in a reaction with atmospheric gases. Auroras are visible in the Arctic and Antarctic nightly whenever there is solar storms, and are routinely seen in northern countries with high latitudes. The farther south you go, the less likely you are to see Northern Lights, with the aerial display being visible at the equator only once every century or two.
The colors of the Northern Lights are indicative of how high in the atmosphere the reaction is taking place. Red lights indicate particles reacting at higher altitudes than green, for example. Since the solar wind is always bathing the earth with particles, there is always some upper atmospheric reactions taking place. It's only when the solar wind is particularly intense that the reaction is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the Northern Lights and how do they occur?
The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, are a natural light display predominantly seen in high-latitude regions around the Arctic. They occur when charged particles from the sun collide with atoms in Earth's atmosphere, causing those atoms to light up. This process creates vibrant curtains of color that dance across the sky. The most common colors are green and pink, but shades of red, yellow, blue, and violet can also be observed.
Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights?
The best places to see the Northern Lights are typically near the Arctic Circle, where geomagnetic activity is strongest. Locations such as Tromsø in Norway, Reykjavik in Iceland, and Fairbanks in Alaska offer some of the most spectacular views. According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the auroral activity is most intense between 65° and 75° latitude, making these areas prime viewing spots.
What time of year is best for viewing the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are most visible during the winter months when the nights are longest, typically from late September to early April. The peak season is during the equinoxes, in September and March, when geomagnetic storms are more frequent. The ideal time to witness the auroras is on a clear, dark night, away from city lights, and during increased solar activity, which can be predicted by space weather forecasts.
Can the Northern Lights be predicted?
Yes, the Northern Lights can be somewhat predicted by monitoring solar activity. The Space Weather Prediction Center provides forecasts about geomagnetic storms, which are a key factor in aurora activity. While it's impossible to predict their occurrence with complete accuracy, these forecasts can give a good indication of when there is a higher chance of seeing the auroras, allowing enthusiasts to plan their viewing trips accordingly.
Are the Northern Lights visible from space?
Yes, the Northern Lights are visible from space and are often photographed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. From this unique vantage point, the auroras appear as a stunning, glowing halo around the Earth's poles. Observing the Northern Lights from space offers a different perspective, showcasing the vast scale and beauty of this natural phenomenon.