The Aurora Borealis Decoded: Your Northern Lights Viewing Handbook

A car under the enchanting glow of the Aurora Borealis, a quiet witness to the Arctic’s celestial spectacle – Photo: Jonatan Pie | Unsplash

The Aurora Borealis, commonly referred to as the Northern Lights, is a renowned astronomical phenomenon that has enthralled stargazers for millennia. Have you ever wondered what transpires during this breathtaking event and how to capture the best view? We’ll provide answers to these questions and more in the following sections.

What Are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights, also known as Polar Lights (Aurora Polaris), are a natural phenomenon resulting from energized particles from the sun colliding with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Similar polar lights can be observed in the southern hemisphere, referred to as Aurora Australis.

These sun-charged particles breach the atmosphere at astonishing speeds, reaching up to 45 million miles per hour. Fortunately, the Earth’s magnetic field shields its residents from harm, redirecting these particles toward the poles. This redirection gives rise to a mesmerizing light display that draws visitors from all corners of the globe.

Thousands of Years of Stargazing

In 1619, the renowned Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei bestowed the name “Aurora Borealis” upon the Northern Lights as a tribute to Aurora, the Roman goddess of Dawn (corresponding to the ancient Greek goddess Eos), and Boreas, the Greek god of the northern wind and winter.

Yet, this spectacular phenomenon graced our skies long before receiving its proper name. Evidence of the Northern Lights can be traced back to ancient times, with cave paintings in southern France dating back an estimated 30,000 years. These ancient depictions offer intriguing glimpses into what researchers believe to be early representations of the Northern Lights.

Where Can You See Them?

Technically, the Aurora Borealis can be visible from anywhere on Earth. However, it’s more readily observed at higher latitudes and locations closer to the Earth’s poles, such as Canada and Alaska.

Regardless of your location, for the best chances of witnessing this celestial display, look towards the northern horizon, in the direction of the North Pole.

When Can You See Them?

In locations like Alaska and Greenland, you can see the northern lights on most nights of the year. They also occur during the day, but they are not visible to the naked eye.

That being said, the winter season in the Arctic, which lasts from late September to late March or early April, is generally considered the best time because the sky is dark enough. The lights are also the most active around the spring and autumn equinoxes in March and September.

The lights generally appear between 5 pm and 2 am. They are often only visible for a few minutes, rarely longer than 15 to 30 minutes, but almost everyone agrees the show is worthwhile.

How to Have the Best Viewing Experience

For most people, viewing the Aurora Borealis is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you’ll want to do everything you can to make it as impressive as possible. Here are some tips that will help you maximize your stargazing:

  1. Choose the right location: Svalbard, Swedish Lapland, Northern Norway, and Iceland are all popular viewing locations.
  2. Get out of the city: City lights will interfere with your view, so get out to the countryside if you can.
  3. Check the weather: Make sure you schedule your viewing for a clear night.
  4. Plan to stay up late: The best views occur late at night in the very early morning hours.
  5. Dress appropriately: It will be chilly — make sure you at least have a warm coat, boots, a hat, and gloves.

If you want to take pictures, be sure to bring the right camera equipment as well. In addition to a camera, you’ll need a wide-angle lens, a tripod, a remote shutter release, and a headlamp or flashlight. Keep a spare battery on hand, too, as cold weather causes batteries to run out faster.

Get Ready to Witness the Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis is one of the most beautiful natural phenomena on earth. If you have a chance to witness the Northern Lights firsthand, absolutely take it — and follow the tips shared above to have the best experience possible.