Polar Lights, Aurora Polaris, Lady Aurora, the Green Lady, you’ve probably seen all of these terms pass by on your social media feed? Did it get you instantly excited but left you wondering what it actually is, where you can see it best, and when you should buy your flight tickets to be the next one to experience it? As it is one of nature’s most curious phenomena, the northern lights spark a plethora of questions. Below we’ll give you an answer to the most frequently asked questions.
The northern lights appear when electrically charged particles, that emanate from the sun, travel at a high speed towards Earth, creating a light that becomes visible when the particles collide with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth’s magnetic field directs the particles towards the openings near the North and South Poles, which indeed allows you to witness this natural magic show on both magnetic poles. In the Southern hemisphere, e.g. Southern Argentina or New Zealand, there is Aurora Australis, or better known as the Southern Lights.
So basically when the sun decides to put up a magic show with the Earth’s atmosphere as its assistant we are the lucky ones to be flabbergasted by this unimaginable must-see-with-your-own-eyes phenomenon. As the pictures might have illustrated, the dancing of the aurora can offer a whole spectrum of colors. Colors range from green to pink to violet, to whatever the sun feels like. The spectrum is endless due to its dependence on which gases the particles from the sun interact with. As a rule of thumb you can say that the greener the lights, the lower in altitude in the atmosphere the collisions are taking place. On the other hand, the higher altitude the collisions, the more it goes towards a reddish color.
The color spectrum of natural magic. Photo: Pexels.
Now that you are educated about what Northern Lights are, we should figure out where your best chances are to actually see them. Northern Lights appear in a zone called the “Aurora Oval”. This zone of auroras is a belt centered around the North Pole and includes the whole of Northern Scandinavia. Even though the Auroras are even possible to watch every now and then as far south as Oslo, the further North you go, the higher your chances will get to see the lights. Tromso, Northern Norway’s largest city is known to be one of the best places in the world to see Northern Lights!
Northern Lights in the gateway to the Arctic, Tromso. Photo: David Broome - Forever West Photography.
In fact, Northern Lights are “active” all year round. However, we can’t see them all year round because it’s not dark during the summer up in the north. If we take Tromso as an example, located 218 miles (350 km) above the Arctic Circle, it simply doesn’t get dark in summer. However, Northern Lights start appearing from around September and all the way through the middle of March. It is possible to see the lights throughout the entire period, but the strongest solar activity is during the seasonal changes which is end of September and the beginning of March.
Explosion of Northern Lights right above you. Photo: Pexels.
Several indexes are used to determine whether or not it will be possible to see Northern Lights. One of the most important indexes is the KP-index. Making use of a scale from 1–9, 1 is very little geomagnetic activity, and 9 is an absolute geomagnetic storm. The higher the KP index, the further south Northern Lights have a chance of being visible; e.g.: Tromso can see Northern Lights with a KP index of 1 or 2 whereas Molde (located on the Norwegian west coast) needs an index of at least 3 or 4.
However, never take predictions for granted as aurora prediction on its own is still in its infancy. On top of the KP-index other conditions should be taken into consideration as well: clear sight towards the North, no clouds, and darkness. From a general perspective a few hours before and just after midnight are usually the best moments to go out and take your chances of experiencing the unique show that Mother Nature has to offer. However, sometimes, depending on your location, it can be visible as early as dinner time (6 pm) or as late as almost-time-to-wake-up-again (6 am).
When you’re lucky enough to experience the lights right above your house. Unsplash/Michal Vrba.
If all of the above sounded too confusing, several apps have been developed giving you a notification when the chances are best to come out and hunt for Northern Lights. Two of the most commonly used apps are “Norway Lights” as well as “Aurora”. They will be able to help you in your chase for the Green Lady. Once again, as it is a natural phenomenon there is no certainty as to when we’ll be able to get lucky, but that is what makes it so unique, right?
Snow, Stars, and Northern Lights, what else do you need? Photo: Pixabay.
What? A collision between particles of the sun and the Earth’s atmosphere creating one of nature’s finest phenomena
Where? Everywhere in the Aurora Belt
When? Between September and March
What time? Best chances right before and after midnight, but possible between 6pm and 6am.
Apps? “Norway Lights” and “Aurora”