What Are the Northern Lights?

Aurora Borealis: Nature's Light Show

March 4, 2021
Aurora

Spring is aurora season! The Aurora borealis aka the Northern Lights appear as green curtains of light dancing across the night sky. What exactly are the Northern Lights and how are they formed? Why are they more visible at the equinoxes? Where can you best see nature’s light show? Find out!

How are the Northern Lights Formed?

Shimmering curtains of color waft in the night air. Huge arcs and pillars of color dance and float through the dark. This is the aurora borealis aka Northern Lights.

Although this light show appears in the night sky, auroras are actually caused by the Sun and solar activity.

  • 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.

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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!

Aurora borealis as seen from the International Space Station (ISS)
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 the Earth is affected more directly by the Sun’s geomagnetic storms. It seems to be related to the Earth’s orbit and the position of our planet’s magnetic poles.

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.

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Where Can You See the 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.

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.

If you ever get a chance to see nature’s light show, don’t miss this spectacular opportunity!

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.
  • A single active display can produce one trillion watts of electricity.
  • Some people claim they have heard the northern lights hiss and crackle.

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Have you ever seen the aurora borealis (or aurora australis)? What was it like in person? Tell us in the comments below!

Source: 

The Old Farmer's Almanac for Kids, Volume 1

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Reader Comments

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Amazing Northern Lights seen between Edmonton & St. Albert AB

We lived in St. Alberta AB from 1980-94 and when driving home, from night school, north of the St. Albert Trail on 156th Street, I would often see the amazing Northern Lights dance before me --- the beauty of the colours dancing across the sky were a delightful way to end any day. When we moved from St. Albert AB to Prince George BC, I only had the pleasure of that experience once and, unfortunately, the dancing colours lasted for only a very short time, but it did bring back fond memories of dancing colours outside of Edmonton.

Northern Lights

My husband I lived in Keflavik Iceland for 2 years while he was in the Navy. We saw them often, very spectacular...pinks, purples and greens! We would lay in the snow and just watch them for hours!

Northern lights

Leaving our reception hall at 1: 00 am on our wedding day in 1984 in Cochrane Ontario Canada. We looked up at the sky to see the most beautiful northern lights! Our wedding guests stood in the parking lot to admire them. It made our day extra special.
We took it as a good omen for our future and here we are, still together going on 37 years.

Unexpected Sighting

When I was in college (16-12 years ago) I was on scholarship as a dancer in a group that perpetuated Eastern European Folk culture through music, song and dance, and we would tour the country performing, doing between 100-120 shows each year on weekends and school breaks. After two months of learning the annual show each summer, we would do a tour through WI and MI which consisted of mostly free shows so we could practice and fine tune our full show while ironing out all the mistakes. We would also stay in private homes of local residents who would volunteer to take us college student performers home for a night. Every year when we went to the UP, 4 of my fellow performers and I would stay with the same couple who owned a farm. I remember, being shocked and amazed the first time there in seeing a dancing green sky. We built a fire and sat out by a pond until about 5am watching the show, before we headed back to our tour bus the next morning, to continue on the road with our shows.

Sounds fun

Sounds like you made some great memories! The European folk music must have been very interesting from both a musical and historical perspective, and the lights were the icing on the cake!

Northern lights

My husband and I were on a small cruise ship in Alaska,when the phone rang. It was about 1am.
The voice said “Northern lights “ Most of the 100 passengers were outside in their pajamas looking up!
The lights were a beautiful green & danced across the dark sky!! I’ll never forget that lucky sight!

I love it

I love it

I saw the colored aurora

I saw the colored aurora borealis several times as a kid while camping @ my grandparents property in northern Wisconsin, also in white from my backyard in the Chicago suburbs.

I saw the Northern Lights

I saw the Northern Lights once in Wisconsin about 10 years ago. It was the most extraordinary vision! I hope to see something of that magnatude again in my lifetime.

Don't think I've ever seen

Don't think I've ever seen it. Need to.

Northern lights

We saw them one night and were truly amazed since we live in Gonzales Texas. It was a once in a lifetime experience that we will never forget. The lights were blue and green and lasted just a short time, but was magnificent! The news person on a San Antonio Texas station alerted people about them appearing......so we went outside, looked to the north, waited a short, and saw them!