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What Are the Northern Lights?

Northern Lights in Hamnoy
Marc Zelek/Shutterstock

The Northern Lights are a somewhat elusive light show put on by nature. For those living in highly lit cities, they’re something rarely seen. When you do see the strange greens and reds in the sky, you may think it’s aliens. As strange and beautiful as they may be, the northern lights aren’t the lights from alien spaceships.

What Causes the Northern Lights?

The northern lights are a colorful dance between the Earth and the Sun if you want to be creative about it. The crazy bright swath of colors happens when there is a collision between gases and particles—it’s colorful gas.

The Earth’s atmosphere is home to gas particles. The Sun releases charged particles that head toward the Earth’s atmosphere on solar winds. While the Earth’s magnetic field deflects many of those particles, some make it through holes caused by sunspots at the weak points in the Earth’s atmosphere at the north and south poles.

When the charged particles from the Sun collide with the Earth’s gas particles, auroras happen. Aurora is another name for the northern lights.

Different Names, Same Lights (Kind of)

For those who live in the northern hemisphere, you know the auroras as northern lights or Aurora Borealis. These lights have a different name in the southern hemisphere—southern lights or Aurora Australis. Their names may be derived from Latin or Greek.

Interestingly, some scientists once believed that the northern and southern lights happen at the same time and were mirror images of one another. However, that may not be the case, according to research done by scientists around the world. Apparently, the Sun’s magnetic field affects the Earth’s, depending on the time of day. The effect that happens makes the northern and southern lights act differently, though, on rare occasions, they will still mirror each other.

Why Do the Colors Vary?

In most artistic renditions of the northern and southern lights, you see mostly greens with some reddish or pink hues. While green seems to be the most common aurora color, the displays can be filled with many vivid colors, including blues, purples, and even yellow shades.

The difference in colors seems to be due to the heights of the colliding particles. The green auroras appear at 60 miles or so above the Earth, and the red auroras are up around 200 miles. Blue and purple hues in the auroras are caused by nitrogen.

The shapes in which you see the auroras can also vary. Large showings of the auroras may look like big curtains of colors, while they can also appear in arcs and streams, and look like a mysterious glow in the sky.

Want to See the Northern or Southern Lights?

The closer you are to the North or South Pole, the better your chances are of witnessing the light display. Auroras are more commonly experienced in places like northern Canada (for the northern lights) and south of Australia (for the southern lights). Iceland and Greenland are both great hosts for viewing auroras.

However, you don’t have to be that far north or south. People in the state of Michigan have seen the northern lights right from their own yards (but you’ll need to be in a dark area, not within a brightly lit city). Light pollution makes it hard to see all of the good stuff in the sky, from constellations to meteor showers. If you live in a city, head at least 30 minutes out of town to a dark place with clear skies. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, you’re looking for the northern light—that means you should be looking north. The higher the ground you are, the better chances you have as well. Of course, if you’re in northern Canada, you can just look up! Clear skies are a must. Auroras are not visible through clouds.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »