What Causes the Northern Lights and Where Can You See Them?

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One of the most magnificent phenomena of nature is the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, seeing which most watchers become breathless. Auroral displays can be numerous colours, though the most widespread colours are pink and pale green. Shades of yellow, red, blue, green and violet are sometimes seen. The lights come into view in various forms from blotches or dispersed hazes of light, to ribbons, arches, undulating draperies or spurting rays that illuminate the sky with a supernatural glow.

Many people are curious to know what causes the Northern Lights and where they can see them. The lights look like a mystery, and there is a range of explanations. This article will help answer those questions.

Northern Lights in Iceland - Photo by Paul Morris - CC0 (Unsplash)
Iceland – Photo by Paul Morris – CCO

History of the Northern Lights

For millennia, the Northern Lights have acted as the source of superstition, speculation and awe. This superb natural phenomenon has been illustrated in cave paintings dating back 30,000 years in France. In times of superstition, people used to think about the Northern Lights as a forerunner of war or devastation, before they actually comprehended what causes the lights. Numerous authors, classic philosophers, astronomers, together with Descartes, Aristotle, Halley and Goethe, mentioned the Northern Lights in their work.

In 1616, Galileo Galilei, the great astronomer, made use of the name Aurora Borealis to identify the Northern Lights, seizing the mythical name of the Roman goddess, Aurora, and the name of the north wind, Boreas.

Northern Lights from Space - Photo by NASA - CC0 (Unsplash)
Northern Lights from Space – Photo by NASA – CCO

What causes the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights result from collisions between gaseous particles in the atmosphere of the earth and the charged particles emitted by the sun. When the charged particles from the sun move through the magnetic shield of the earth, they merge with atoms or molecules of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases and the result is the amazing spectacle of lights in the night sky.

Differences in colour are caused by the different kinds of colliding gas particles. The most frequent auroral colour, pale green, is generated by molecules of oxygen found around 60 miles over the earth. Occasional red auroras are generated by oxygen at high altitude – at altitudes of about 200 miles. Purplish-red or blue aurora is generated by nitrogen.

Aurora lights at night - CC0 (Pixabay)
Aurora – CCO

Where can you see the Northern Lights?

As the particles are discharged by the sun, the weather condition of the sun governs whether the aurora can be seen in the sky. When the charged particles are trapped in the earth’s magnetic field, they are drawn towards the Polar regions. That is why the lights are exhibited in the parts nearest to the Polar regions like Alaska, Canada and Norway.

Northern Lights happen at both the North Pole and the South Pole of the earth. In the North, the lights are recognized as “Aurora Borealis” and in the South, they are recognized as “Aurora Australis”.

“Aurora Oval” is the name of the region where you have the highest chances to see the Northern Lights. Typically, it is not the north magnetic pole where the Northern Lights are strongest; instead, they are strongest at “Aurora Oval”, depending on the direction of the solar wind flow. “Aurora Oval” embraces most regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The Northern Lights are also seen in North Russia, and the people of north-central areas of the USA and Scotland may also see them.

Consider using an App such as “My Aurora Forecast” (IOS | Android) to track the position.

Northern Lights in Norway - CC0 (Pixabay)
Norway – CCO

When can you see the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are present at all times, but winter is frequently the best time to see the lights. This is because during the winter light pollution levels are lower and the air is clear and crisp.

March, April, September and October are also the months when you can see the lights best. The lengthier darkness periods, as well as the occurrence of clear nights offer lots of good chances to view the auroral shows. Normally midnight is the top time to view the spectacles.

Depending on your location, the Northern Lights may display every night or only a couple of times in a month. Norway is the region where Northern Lights are viewed the most.

You may like: How to Photograph the Northern Lights


Now that you have learnt what causes the Northern Lights and when you can see them, you can make a plan to watch this amazing light display at some point. Of course, you must watch them in the months of winter. Norway is admired due to mild winters and is a tad pleasanter than some other colder places. The temperatures are normally found to be in the single digits during the winters.

Though we have understood what causes the Northern Lights, still there are many people who are cynical regarding their real cause. Since the wonderful natural phenomenon is always being studied by science, increasingly people are going to Polar regions to know what the beautiful lights are all about. Soon these people turn into believers and pursue the Northern Lights to view and learn more about them.

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Yogi and Suchna


Yogi and Suchna believe in taking the road less travelled and stumbling upon some hidden gems along the way! For over a decade, they’ve mapped their way across various continents, sniffed out unusual routes, discovered new flavours and stayed at quirky hostels. TheVillaEscape is their expression of soul travel. Check Iceland Tour From India where you can catch up with them at TheVillaEscape.

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