What causes the Northern Lights?
The phenomenon occurs when electrically-charged particles from the sun are carried in the solar wind to Earth, where they collide with gaseous particles in Earth’s atmosphere. The energy released from those collisions is emitted as billions of small sparks, creating the effect we see. It occurs on other planets too.
Where’s the best place to see the Northern Lights?
You can see the phenomenon in both polar regions – it’s known as the ‘Southern Lights’ (Aurora Australis) in the south. They form in these regions specifically because the earth’s magnetic field attracts the arriving electro-charged particles to the poles.
The viewing is better in the northern hemisphere (hence why no-one hunts the ‘Southern Lights’), and within the north, there’s a so-called ‘Aurora Belt’, between the Earth’s latitude parallels of 66° and 69°, where the phenomenon appears with the most intense light and greatest colour variations.
See our round-up of some of the best destinations to see the Northern Lights. They are all located in the Aurora Belt, are all accessible (some more than others) and have a wide range of accommodation, tours and experiences specifically set up for seeing the Lights. They are the recognised global hotspots – so that’s where you should go.
When can you see the Northern Lights?
The atmospheric shin-dig happens throughout the year – every time a solar wind arrives bringing ions with them. Spring and Autumn are therefore usually best – as you need clear skies which are, of course, harder to come by in winter.
Natural light in summer months or any man-made light pollution also dilutes their visual impact and makes them harder to see. You need a dark, inky black sky, as far away from any urban centre as possible.
Still, the Northern Lights are notoriously fickle performers; they can appear anytime, anywhere. But if you’re in the right part of the planet, at the right time of year, for more than a couple of days, your chances of seeing them are excellent.
You also don’t need to stay up all night hoping they show up. The build-up of energies that give rise to the lights is closely monitored, such that impending displays can be accurately predicted by monitoring stations. Many hotels and tour operators use their forecasts to offer a handy alert service, so you can be gazing skyward for that first ethereal streak. You can also sign up for your own alerts (Europe only) with the free Aurora Service.