What are Northern Lights: Aurora Borealis | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Northern Lights Appearing Farther South!

Primary Image
No content available.

See more of the aurora borealis!

Print Friendly and PDF

The northern lights are appearing much farther south! Find out why we’ll all see more of the aurora borealis in the coming years, as well as when and where to see nature’s shimmering light show!

What are Northern Lights?

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are beautiful, colorful light displays in the Earth’s sky; they originate from the Sun itself and happen with strong solar winds penetrate Earth’s magnetic field, causing charged particles to collide with gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

  • In the Northern Hemisphere, the event is called the aurora borealis, which means “dawn of the north,” or the northern lights.
  • In the Southern Hemisphere, it is called the aurora australis, which means “dawn of the south,” or the southern lights.

Even the names are beautiful! 

Viewings Are Increasing Further South!

Spring is prime viewing time for the auroras which are more common near the equinoxes. What’s exciting is that people are reporting viewings not only in the usual places such as the northern-tier states and Canada, but also in southern states down to North Carolina, central California, and even Arizona!

Why is this happening? It’s all related to the Sun and the solar cycle. Every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic fields flip, and this phenomenon is predicted to happen again in 2025 during the “solar maximum.” During this part of the solar cycle, the Sun is especially active and stormy with lots of solar flares and CMEs (coronal mass ejections). This increased activity in the Sun’s magnetic field will also expand visibility of the northern lights. Learn more about the solar cycle and the current solar cycle 25

What Causes the Northern Lights

The Sun has weather just like Earth! At times, 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, charged particles (electrons and protons) collide with gases in the upper atmosphere, which causes the gasses to glow. As billions of collisions occur in sequence, the auroras appear to move or “dance” in the sky.

Because of the shape of Earth’s magnetic field, the charged particles stream towards the poles. This is why auroras are most often seen in the high latitudes, near the North and South Poles. They can appear as curtains of light moving across the entire sky and sometimes appear as huge arcs and pillars of color that dance and float through the dark.

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.


One of the most colorful auroras 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!

Aurora borealis as seen from the International Space Station (ISS)
The aurora borealis as seen from the International Space Station (ISS).

When to See Auroras

While auroras are triggered any time by strong solar activity, the traditional aurora-watching season is during the weeks before and after the spring and fall equinoxes, when we transition seasons.

Why? According to NOAA, the times around the equinoxes are when the Earth is affected more directly by the Sun’s geomagnetic storms, which cause disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field. It seems to be related to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun and the position of our planet’s magnetic poles at a given time of year.

The best time of the day to spot auroras is late at night or in the early morning (from 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 Can You See the Northern Lights?

While the Northern Lights are indeed spreading to regions farther south, they are most common at high latitudes. Aurora fans will often 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. When there are massive solar storms (as is more likely near the solar maximum), the lights will appear farther south.

Some Web sites such as spaceweather.com will report on solar explosions and forecast upcoming auroras. NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center also reports on solar flare activity.  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.

Aurora Borealis

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.
  • It’s oxygen in the atmosphere that creates the green light, while nitrogen causes the blue light.
  • 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!