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Northern Lights

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long-exposure photo of the Aurora Borealis in Alaska
Northern Lights over Tromsø, Northern Norway

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon that can paint the night sky with unearthly, surreal color. To observers at far-northern latitudes, they're a frequent occurrence, but many who live in more temperate climates have never seen them, even though they're sometimes seen as far south as 35 degrees north latitude. This article will help you improve your chances of seeing the Lights if you journey north.

Understanding the lights better

The Northern Lights are similar to a sunset in the sky at night, but appear occasionally in arcs or spirals usually following the earth's magnetic field. They are most often light green in color but often have a hint of pink. Strong eruptions also have violet and white colours. Red northern lights are rare, but can sometimes be observed on lower latitudes The Aurora Borealis is caused by charged particles ejected from the sun. When these particles reach the earth, they collide with gas atoms in the earth's atmosphere causing them to energise which results in a spectacular multi-coloured light show.

Where

Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland

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Planning to see the Northern Lights

There is no guarantee to see the Northern Lights, even if you are in the best areas. However, a bit of planning will radically increase your chances. In short, come between late September and late March!

What time of the year

Darkness is required. Most Northern Lights locations are found at high latitutes, meaning there is no darkness from mid-April until mid-August (even more in far northern locations like Svalbard). In this period of time, no Northern Lights can be observed.

In the most intense Northern Lights area (notably Alaska, Yukon, Iceland and Northern Scandinavia), the lights are observed from late August to mid April. However, from late September to late March, it is dark after 6pm, and one enjoys maximum chances.

On a yearly basis, the Lights are at their peak in September and March. The reasons for this trend aren't fully known, but it's definitely real, not just an artifact of the weather or other viewing conditions.


What time of day

The time between 6pm and 4am is the most intense period of the day. The highest probability within this timespan is between 10 and 11pm. However, this is a guideline, and during the Polar night auroras can be observed as early as 4pm, and all through the night. In periods of strong activity, one can expect several flares starting at around 6pm, peaking around 10pm, and going on until 1pm.

11-year cycle

In the longer term, auroral displays are correlated with an 11-year cycle in sunspot activity and other perturbations of the sun; the more restless the sun, the more aurorae. 2006-7 corresponded to a minimum in solar activity, and the next maximum in solar activity will be around 2013, with frequent Northern Lights displays likely for another two or three years after that.

Solar storms

In addition to these more or less regular variations in frequency of the aurora, there are also less predictable, erratic displays resulting from solar storms. Some of these, particularly near solar-activity maximum, can lead to visible Northern Lights remarkably far south, if you're in an area with clear, transparent night skies. The "Alerts" section below will help you stay on top of solar activity and prepare for some viewing when a solar storm does occur.

Clear skies

Last but not least, don't forget the weather forecast — aurora occur very high up in the atmosphere, and if there are clouds in the way you will not see anything. In Northern Scandinavia, 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 succes factor in the areas under the Northern Lights oval, where there is visible Northern Lights up to 80% of all clear nights.

Prepare

Alerts

If you have the luxury of being able to travel into aurora-viewing territory on short notice, you can improve your chances of seeing something by being aware of "space weather," the things going on beyond the earth's atmosphere as a result of solar activity. A good site for this information is http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/ operated by the (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, precisely for the purpose of keeping up on space weather. (The commercial site http://www.spaceweather.com/ presents much of the same information in digested, more accessible form.)

The University of Alaska Fairbanks maintains an Aurora Alert website at http://www.gedds.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/.

If a major solar storm develops that is forecast to have a good chance of producing Northern (and Southern) Lights, your time to respond will be measured in hours to a few days, rather than either minutes or weeks. The forecasts will usually include some indication of how far from the magnetic poles the activity is expected to extend. For purposes of travel planning, it's a good idea to plan conservatively and go to a locale somewhat closer to the pole than the maximum extent of the aurora; things don't always work out as forecast, and the Lights may be relatively weak and/or confined to the northern horizon if you're at the southern edge of the activity, either limitation possibly creating difficulties for you in viewing owing to light pollution.

Into the wilds

Photography

Taking good pictures of the Northern Lights is very difficult, since they're fast-moving, often faint and against a pitch-dark background, all of which befuddles consumer point-and-shoots. Here's what you need for a sporting chance:

  • A camera that supports manual exposure (5 to 40 seconds).
  • A fast lens (aperture f/2.8 or better)
  • Fast film (800 ASA or better), or equivalent ISO setting on a digital camera
  • A tripod to hold the long exposure
  • Cable release or self-timer to trigger shots without stirring the camera

Observing sites

Northern Lights usually form 60mi/100km 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, suffering harsh climatic conditions. The mentioned locations provide some kind of infrastructure, like tours, observation points etc.

  • Kangerlussuaq, Greenland: 99% Chance of visual between November to March. If Husky and snowmobile rides are intended, mid-late winter is recommended.
  • Jukkasjärvi, Northern Sweden, is the site of the original Ice hotel, with excellent viewing infrastructure.
  • Fairbanks, Alaska: famous for aurora viewing, with many tours and sites that cater to aurora sighting.
  • Tromsø, Northern Norway, is an easily accessible location with numerous excursion.
  • Skibotn, Northern Norway, enjoys an extremely dry climate, thus providing excellent chances.
  • Reykjavik, Iceland,[1] has many tours and places to go to for viewing the northern lights.
  • Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada has many tours from the town of Whitehorse. High success rate of visualizing this phenomenal natural wonder!
  • Lake Athapapuskow Manitoba, Canada also has many tours.
  • Yellowknife, North Western Territories, Canada 90% success rate on viewing.

Okay, so how about the Southern Lights?

Aurorae happen in a circle/ellipse about the South Magnetic Pole just as they do about the north one, and the South Magnetic Pole is similarly offset from the geographic South Pole. Would-be observers of the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis benefit from the happy accident that the offset of the South Magnetic Pole is generally in the direction of Australia, although the Pole itself is still in Antarctica like the geographic one. Tasmania is therefore relatively favored for the Aurora Australis, and southern Australia gets more than its share of Lights relative to latitude. All of the considerations about maximizing your chances of seeing the Northern Lights apply equally to seeing the southern ones.

See also

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