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Understanding and appreciating the Northern Lights

Secondary Categories: Alaska

The aurora borealis, aka the Northern Lights, is a breathtaking natural phenomenon that draws visitors from all over the world. If you're planning a trip to the Arctic, here's everything you need to know about the Northern Lights.

Northern Lights 101

The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, is a natural phenomenon that occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with atoms and molecules in the Earth's atmosphere. This collision produces a spectacular light show in the sky that can range in color from green and yellow to pink and purple.

The process of aurora formation begins with the sun, which constantly emits a stream of electrically charged particles called the solar wind. When the solar wind reaches the Earth, it encounters the planet's magnetic field, which deflects most of the particles away from the Earth's atmosphere. Some of the charged particles, however, manage to enter the atmosphere at the magnetic poles, where the magnetic field is weaker. These particles collide with the atoms and molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, ionizing them and causing them to emit light.

Green and red Aurora seen from space by NASA, International Space Station
An incredible aurora shot from the International Space Station. The red coloring is reportedly caused by nitrogen in the Earth's atmosphere being bombarded with radiation from a solar flare.

The color of the aurora depends on the type of atom or molecule that is being ionized. For example, when oxygen is ionized, it emits a green or yellow light, while nitrogen produces a red, blue, or purple light. The shape of the aurora is determined by the shape of the Earth's magnetic field, which channels the charged particles toward the magnetic poles in a doughnut-shaped region known as the auroral oval. The auroral oval shifts with changes in the solar wind, and the location of the aurora can vary from night to night.

By studying the Northern Lights, scientists hope to better understand the Earth's magnetic field and the interactions between the solar wind and the Earth's atmosphere.

Cultural significance

The Northern Lights have long been a source of fascination and wonder for people all around the world. For the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, they hold a special cultural significance that dates back thousands of years. Many Arctic cultures view the Northern Lights as a manifestation of the spirits of their ancestors, and as a reminder of their close connection to the natural world. The Inuit people of Canada, for example, have many traditional stories and beliefs about the Northern Lights, which they call aqsarniit or "spirits of the dead."

In some cultures, the Northern Lights were believed to be a sign of good fortune, and were often viewed as a positive omen for hunting, fishing, and other important activities. In other cultures, the Northern Lights were seen as a warning or a symbol of impending danger. Today, the Northern Lights continue to be an important cultural symbol for many indigenous communities in the Arctic. They are celebrated in art, music, and storytelling, and are often used as a way to connect younger generations to their cultural heritage.

Northern lights or aurora borealis with Inukshuk stone structure built by Inuit in the Arctic
Inukshuk standing before the dancing lights. An Inuksuk is a stone landmark or cairn built by the Inuit, meaning “to act in the capacity of a human.”

When to go

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter months, from late September to early April. During this time, the Arctic nights are long and dark, providing the perfect conditions for the lights to shine brightly. Keep in mind that the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon and can never be guaranteed, even during peak season.

Where to go

There are several destinations in the Arctic where you can see the Northern Lights. Some of the best places include:

These locations are known for their clear skies and low light pollution, making them ideal for Northern Lights viewing.

How to view the Northern Lights

Northern lights or aurora borealis on the coast of Tromsø, Norway
A gorgeous shot of the aurora beaming across the sky in the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø.

To view the Northern Lights, you'll need to be in a location with a clear view of the northern horizon. The lights can appear at any time during the night, but they are most active between 10 PM and 2 AM. It's best to go outside and give yourself at least an hour to adjust your eyes to the darkness before attempting to see the lights. Dress warmly, bring a thermos of hot cocoa or tea, and be patient – the lights can sometimes take a while to appear.

How to photograph the Northern Lights

Capturing the Northern Lights on camera can be a challenging but rewarding experience. Here are some tips for getting the best shot:

  • Use a tripod to keep your camera steady and avoid blurry photos.

  • Use a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the sky as possible.

  • Set your camera to manual mode and adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to achieve the correct exposure.

  • Use a remote shutter release or self-timer to avoid shaking the camera while taking the photo.

  • Experiment with different compositions, angles, and settings to get the best shot.

The Northern Lights are a natural wonder that should be experienced at least once in a lifetime. With the right preparation, you can maximize your chances of seeing and photographing this incredible phenomenon during your Arctic adventure. Keep in mind that the lights are unpredictable, so be patient and enjoy the magic of the Arctic night sky.

See them for yourself

Northern lights or aurora borealis in Fairbanks, Alaska
On your expedition to Fairbanks, Alaska, be sure to keep your eye on the sky!

SA Expeditions offers you two main ways to see the Northern Lights. Our 8-Day Alaskan Northern Lights Tour is available August thru April. In addition to viewing the Northern Lights from the comfort of your own personal igloo, you’ll go on a flightseeing tour of the Arctic Circle and you’ll snowshoe through the forests of Girdwood.

Our 9-Day Northern Lights Arctic Cruise, meanwhile, offers an opportunity to view the aurora borealis while embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime Iceland and Greenland cruise. Other highlights of this incredible tour, which typically departs in August and/or early September, include getting up close and personal with icebergs, narwhals, arctic hares and whales.

And remember: the sample itineraries above can be customized to meet your exact needs. Speak to a Destination Expert now about crafting the Northern Lights adventure you’ve always dreamed of.

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