Along with the colorful leaves that fall ushers in, the night sky has its own colorful display near the equinox. The northern lights—one of nature’s most dazzling events—are extra-visible. Shimmering curtains of color waft in the night air. Huge arcs and pillars of color dance and float through the dark. Learn more about the aurora borealis.
What Cause the Northern Lights?
Although it appears at night, the light show that we call an aurora is actually caused by the Sun!
- The Sun is very stormy, constantly sending out solar flares and high-energy charged particles that travel at speeds of up to a million miles per hour.
- “Solar wind” is made up of streams of these particles. As a strong solar wind gust enters the Earth’s magnetic field and collides with gases in the upper atmosphere, the gases begin to glow in a variety of colors;
- Auroras often start with a green glow. You could see shades of green, red, yellow, purple, and blue. The colors depend on the energy level of each gas particle and which gas particles are present.
- The movement is also beautiful. When the solar winds ripple through the magnetic field, the curtains of light appear to dance, brighten, or fade.
Because of the nature of Earth’s magnetic field, auroras are most often seen in the high latitudes, near the poles.
- In the Northern Hemisphere, the event is called the aurora borealis, which means “northern dawn,” or the northern lights.
- In the Southern Hemisphere, it is called the aurora australis, which means “southern dawn,” or the southern lights.
One of the most colorful auroras in recent history occurred in March 1989. It was visible in Canada and the United States and as far south as Mexico. The electrical surge that accompanied it was so strong that parts of Canada were blacked out all night!
The aurora borealis as seen from the International Space Station (ISS).
Best Time of Year to See Northern Lights
Aurora-watching season is during the weeks before and after the spring and autumnal equinoxes, when we transition seasons. Why? According to NOAA, the times around the equinoxes are when geomagnetic storms — disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field — are strongest.
The best time of the day to spot auroras is late at night or in the early morning, from about 10:00 P.M. to about 3:00 A.M.
Look north on a clear, moonless night from a dark place away from city lights.
Where to See Northern Lights
The auroras occur at high latitudes so aurora fans will even travel to Alaska or Norway to see the sight on a tour. However, if you live in Canada or the northern tier states (Maine, Michigan, etc.), you are likely to see the Northern Lights if you make an effort. Occasionally, the Lights will occasionally make it further south.
If you have a shortwave radio or have a CB radio, any disturbances or skips are also a telltale sign.
That night, the next night, and even the next, get out away from city lights and look up toward the north.
If you ever get a chance to see nature’s light show, don’t miss this spectacular opportunity!
Fun Facts About the Northern Lights
- No two light shows are ever the same.
- The most common colors are green and pink, but the aurora may also appear purple, red, blue, or yellow.
- A single active display can produce one trillion watts of electricity.
- Some people claim they have heard the northern lights hiss and crackle.
Have you ever seen the aurora borealis (or aurora australis)? What was it like in person? Tell us in the comments below!