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What Causes The Northern Lights - Aurora Borealis

Updated on October 14, 2012

If you are wondering exactly what causes the Northern Lights, then you are in the right place. Here we will examine this beautiful spectacle and explain why it actually happens. We will tell you everything you need to know about the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis to give them their scientific name. Along with this information we will also give you a few ideas on how you can witness this wonder of nature.

The Northern Lights are the magical glow that occurs high in the Northern Hemisphere. They are actually called the Aurora Borealis which translates as ‘Dawn of the North’. In the Southern Hemisphere a similar phenomenon occurs which is known as the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis. Both events are really the same thing happening in two different places. But what exactly causes the Northern Lights? Well let’s take a look.

A Solar Storm Emits Particles

What Is The Cause Of The Northern Lights

The strange eerie lights that can often be seen high in the northern skies are actually solar particles colliding with the gases in the earths atmosphere. These particles are released by our sun and then travel on the solar wind towards the earth. Most of these are deflected away by our magnetic field but at the two poles the field is weaker and so it allows some of these particles to enter our atmosphere. When they react with the gases they start to glow, creating spectacular light displays and giving us something to marvel at. The lights can take many different forms, sometimes they look like shimmering waves, sometimes they form long lines, other times they may just look like a thin mist.

The strength of an Aurora depends upon how many particles the sun throws out into space. When there is a solar storm, then often a few days later we experience high levels of Aurora activity. This means it is possible to predict the Northern Lights a few days in advance. The majority of Aurora displays come across as eerie green lights, but you can also see red, pink and even blue displays. The color the particles display depends upon where they collide with the earth‘s gases. The standard green glow usually takes place around 70 miles above the earth and is caused when particles collide with oxygen. On rare occasions though the solar particles will collide much further away, sometimes up to 200 miles from the earth, this is when we see red displays.

The Northern Lights

When Can You See The Aurora?

As you can imagine for viewing conditions to be perfect you need darkness. Hence the winter months are the ideal time to go hunting for the mystical glow. Long dark nights provide optimal viewing and you tend to find that between the months of September and April are your best chances. You also need to take into consideration the moon, a bright full moon will decrease the chances you have of seeing the perfect show.

You also need to take into consideration the long running Aurora cycle. This seems to run on a twelve year basis. So some years will have very low activity levels whereas others will have high levels. The Aurora is due to peak in 2013 so this will be the perfect time to go hunting for something. You also need to make sure you are far away enough from light pollution so this does not interfere. Another issue that you cannot control is of course the weather, you may have the best Aurora ever overhead, but if it is blocked by cloud cover then you won’t be able to see anything. This is something to take into consideration when deciding where to view from as some countries have far more clear nights that others.

The Aurora At It's Best

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Where Can You See The Aurora Borealis

Catching a glimpse of the spectacle is something that entices many people to head to the far north. The reality is though that the Aurora can often be viewed further south than people realise. When there has been a solar storm and activity levels are high then you can view the lights as far south as countries such as Scotland or France. Even in some of the Northern US states you can occasionally see a glow on the horizon. Obviously though you do need the perfect conditions and a great deal of luck to be able to see anything from these locations.

If you want a really good chance of seeing the Northern Lights then you need to head north. The Aurora forms a wide arc across the northern hemisphere. Countries such as Norway, Siberia, Iceland and Greenland are all perfect for viewing. Alternatively head for North-West Canada or Alaska, these often get some breathtaking light shows in the winter months. Due to the way the arc falls sometimes being along way north is not always enough, so if you are unsure of where exactly to head you should first do a little bit of research.

If you want something a little different then try heading south. In the far Southern Hemisphere you can see the Northern Lights' mirror image in the form of the Southern Lights. These work in the same way and often look the same of the Northern versions. They do however tend to be a little more difficult to spot simply due to the fact that there is less land down in the South. However when condition are right you can see the Aurora Australis from New Zealand, Australia and even South America.

The Northern Lights really are one of natures greatest wonders. What causes them is fairly easy to understand and when you know this it gets easier to predict when exactly you should be going looking for displays. If you are privileged enough to witness the Northern Lights or the Southern Lights for that matter, then you will agree that this is one spectacle that you will never forger. It’s amazing to think that small particles discharged from our sun can create such amazing night time displays here on earth.


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    • mecheshier profile image

      mecheshier 5 years ago

      Fabulous Hub. Beautiful pics and very useful info. Thank you for sharing. Voted up for beautiful and useful.

    • cactusbythesea profile image

      cactusbythesea 5 years ago from Seattle

      Very cool, I hope to see the Northern Lights myself someday. Thanks for sharing!

    • Patty Kenyon profile image

      Patty Kenyon 5 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

      Awesome!!! I always wanted to see the Northern Lights, I can only imagine how beautiful they are to see in person!!