This article is a travel topic
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 sometimes a variety of other colors. 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.
Contrary to intuition, seeing the Northern Lights isn't just a matter of heading "north." The Lights usually circle the globe in a circular or elliptical band centered on the earth's North Magnetic Pole, which is not at the same location as the North Geographic Pole, but rather is offset in the direction of northern Canada. Furthermore, auroral displays aren't strongest at the North Magnetic Pole; the band of greatest auroral activity is usually offset from the Magnetic Pole by 20 degrees or so.
The Northern Lights oval, meaning the area with the highest probability, covers most of Alaska, northern parts of Canada, the southern half of Greenland, Iceland and Northern Norway and the northernmost areas of Sweden and Finland, as well as the Russian peninsula.
This quirk is actually fairly convenient for would-be aurora watchers. It means that locations in the north-central United States, for example Minnesota and North Dakota, and also southern Canada see Northern Lights much more frequently than they would if the Lights were centered on the North Geographic Pole. Alaska and Lapland (the northern part of Finland, Norway and Sweden) also fall in the region of greatest probability, while the far-north territory of Siberia that misses out on some of the Lights (because the Magnetic Pole is displaced away from that region) tends to be more inaccessible to the traveler.
A curiosity is that the exact location of the North Magnetic Pole varies from year to year, sometimes by tens of miles. The Pole has been moving north for a few years now as of 2006; it's now near Ellesmere Island in the nearly uninhabited far north of Canada. As a consequence, the advantages of being on the "right side" of the earth are not as pronounced as they were some years ago. Still, there's a slight North American bias even today in your chance of seeing the Lights.
This said, the actual latitudes of the Lights vary considerably. In times of high solar activity (more on that later), the Lights may be seen in North America at latitudes as low as 35 degrees north, meaning that all but the southernmost parts of the United States may get a display. The offset of the Pole keeps solar storms from benefiting Europe quite as strongly, but most of the countries of northern Europe will get displays during periods of solar storms.
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 yours chances.
What time of the year
On a yearly basis, the Lights are at their peak in September and March, but also in October and April. 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.
Keep in mind that 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.
What time of day
The time between 6pm and 1 am 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 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. Unfortunately, 2006-7 corresponds to a minimum in solar activity, and therefore the number of Northern Lights-lit nights. However, at the most favorable latitudes, the Lights are still likely to be seen even at solar minimum; it's mainly at lower latitudes that they get scarce during the inactive times. The next maximum in solar activity will be in about 2013, with frequent Northern Lights displays likely for another two or three years after that, so you have plenty of time to plan a trip.
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.
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.
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.sec.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
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:
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.