Step aside photoshop- these photographs of the Northern Lights are as authentic as they come. These illuminating and multi-coloured light shows will definitely make you question if they are edited or not because of how spectacular these luminous shows truly are.
The Northern Lights, also referred to as Aurora Borealis, showcase a miraculous light show, which can be viewed from a multitude of locations around the world. If you are in the right spot at the right time, you can watch the show every evening.
These IG-worthy displays date back to the 16th century, and have become widely popular over the years due to the increase in photo-tourism and social media. Many tourists travel to the top spots in the Northern Hemisphere to catch a glimpse of the shows. However, there is no guarantee how long the light show will last or what colours will light up the sky that night, so you are always in for a surprise. With the right camera, timing, and location, you are in for a show.
We have put together a short and surprising history lesson with 17 little known facts about the Northern Lights that may surprise you, paired with the 8 best places to see them for yourself.
25 The Northern Lights Were First Described And Named By Galileo Galilei in 1619
Dating back to 1619, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the first person to document and describe the phenomenon that is now the Northern Lights. He paired the terms, “Aurora” and “Borealis” to describe the visuals he saw of the aurora, which was the sunlight reflecting into the atmosphere.
It later became referred to as the Northern Lights, simply because of the location of where it is most accessible to experience. However, it was earlier recognized in 2600 B.C. by the mother of the Yellow Empire, Shuan- Yuan in China. She claimed she saw lights reflecting and illuminating the area of the constellation of Bei-Dou.
24 The Name Is Derived From Roman and Greek Words
The explanation behind the name Aurora Borealis was created by Galileo Galilei himself. Aurora was the goddess of the morning, and because Galileo saw the lights lighting up the sky, he believed it was sunlight. In addition to the Greek root of Aurora, auroras are the result of gas particles colliding within the Earth’s atmosphere, with particles that are released from the sun’s atmosphere. Additionally, borealis is Greek for North, which is where the lights show is best viewed.
As explained by NASA, the Northern Lights are the visual result of solar particles entering the earth’s magnetic field in the high atmosphere.
23 Gas Particles Are Responsible For The Bright, Flashing Lights
Here is a quick science lesson behind the bright, flashing colours that are the Northern Lights: NASA helps us understand that the constant changing colours of the auroras are dependent on which type of gas “excite” the electrons and how much energy is being exchanged between them.
When these high energy particles interact with the atmosphere, it causes a change in the colours. The colour that is most common to see during a Northern Lights show is green, as oxygen creates this in the atmosphere.
22 Green Is The Most Common Colour Of All Auroras
The luminous colours of the Northern Lights shows will make you green with envy; the most common colour to light up the sky during these shows is green. Rarely, you will see mixtures of pink, red, and blue in the atmosphere. The reasons for this are the types of collisions that occur that exit from the gases and at certain altitudes.
The closer the auroras are to us, the more green they will appear. Additionally, our eyes are not capable of seeing the strong varieties of these colours, and a majority of the time, they will appear green to us.
21 The Deeper Shade Of Red, The Farther The Lights Are Up In The Sky
Most of the pictures we see online associated with the Northern Lights are greenish- yellow and shades of those colours. However, we see other varieties of colours less frequently, and when we do, it is pretty special. Red is a unique colour to see during the Northern Lights show because of how infrequent it appears.
According to the Aurora Zone, the colour red only appears when there is intense solar activity, and the height of the aurora is much further than when they are the typical green we are used to. When the sky is lit up with red, it means the solar particles are reacting with oxygen at higher levels than usual, as far away as 400 miles.
20 The Best Way To See A Lights Show Is Through A Camera
The Northern Lights show is an experience in itself, but being able to see the legitimate colours that are illuminating the sky above you is even more special. Unfortunately for the human eye, we are incapable of seeing the entirety of the show because of how fast the aurora is moving and because our eyes are too sensitive to see certain colours.
We recommend getting a point and shoot camera with a fast shutter speed in order to experience the Northern Lights to the fullest. Using a camera will allow you to recognize more colours and appreciate the beauty of the lights even more.
19 No Two Light Displays Are The Same
Just like snowflakes, no two light displays are the same. Lucky us! According to Aurora Hunter when particles collide, they are pulled towards the North Pole, interacting with the atmosphere. As the energy is released, we see the lights show.
Due to speed, gases, and a variety of interactions, there is always different interactions in the atmosphere, causing what we see to be diverse and never the same.
18 Light Shows Can Last 10 Minutes Or All Night
A little known secret to seeing the Northern Lights is definitely patience. While there is no way of predicting how long a show will last for or when it will begin, on average they are visible between 4pm to 6am each night, but usually the best time to ensure you see an aurora is between 10pm to 1am. Patience is right!
Additionally, according to the Aurora Hunter, the length of the show is dependent on the magnitude of the incoming solar wind. But, as you can see from the picture, it is worth it to take your chances and wait.
17 It Is Visible Every Night Of The Year In Alaska And Greenland
Besides having to bear the constant snow and cold climate, living in Alaska and Greenland has its perks. These two locations are known for having the best luck for viewing the lights, as long as the sky is clear. As the lights are only visible in the dark, during cloudless nights, tourists don’t have a good chance of seeing them in the summer.
However, in both Alaska and Greenland, because of their location being so close to the Northern Hemisphere, people have the best chance of seeing them anywhere around the region at any time during the year.
16 NASA Sends Updates For Light Shows
NASA appreciates the Northern Lights as much as us tourists do. Thanks to their consistent updates, they keep the public informed so we can enjoy and take part in the experience that is talked about worldwide. This is helpful to guide us to which spots are more accurate to experience the full luminous show and to help us narrow down the timing.
As waiting for the lights to commence can really test our patience, we could be waiting in the great white north for hours for a show to begin; their online updates keep us on track. Thanks, NASA!
15 The Southern Lights Are Just As Beautiful But Difficult To Access
Make room for the Southern Lights! Little did we know, Aurora Australis exists and displays the same lights show, but on the opposite hemisphere. The reason it is not as popular as Aurora Borealis is because of the location and how inaccessible it is. Besides wildlife and limited researchers, it is very difficult to reach accessible and safe land that southern on the hemisphere.
There are very few researchers and explorers that have found justification for making the trek that far south to see the lights, when there is a practically identical show in the North.
14 Other Planets Experience Northern Lights, Too
Planet Earth isn’t the only one that gets to experience these spectacular light shows. These shows also occur throughout the solar system on planets including, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Mars, and Jupiter.
The shows are very similar to what we experience on Earth, but what they are made up of is different. As these planets are mainly made up of hydrogen, these lights are extremely bright and are ultraviolet.
13 The More North You Are, The Better Northern Lights Experience You Will Have
Pack your warmest winter clothes and head North; It is true, the more North you are, the better chances you will have of seeing the Northern Lights. There are plenty of popular viewing spots that attract tourists every year from Scandinavian countries to Northern Canada, but the best spot to experience this worldly phenomenon is in the Arctic.
Additionally, because the sunsets happen much earlier in the Arctic during the winter months, lucky travellers who are willing to brave the cold will have the opportunity to catch the lights in the early afternoon and get an earlier night’s sleep.
12 December to March Are The Best Times To See The Northern Lights
If you do not have access to scientific equipment (or do not want to pay the hefty price,) the best times to experience the Northern Lights are between December to March. Due to longer hours of darkness, you have a better chance to experience the lights and not be disappointed with the sun rising too early.
However, with scientific equipment, you can view the lights between April to August, but it will be more difficult because the skies are too light, and it will be challenging for the human eye to capture everything the lights have to offer.
11 The Lights Can Sound Like A Thunderstorm
Make some noise for the Northern Lights! It is rare to hear, but the Northern Lights produce similar sounds to a thunderstorm, and are not only a visual display on certain nights. Crackles and claps can be heard for miles on windless nights when there is maximum aurora activity.
This is an uncommon experience, but when you do hear the noises, it is a result of charged particles thrown off from the Sun and interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field, as The Aurora Zone explains.
10 Baltic Legends of the Lights
As the history of the lights dates so far back, we were able to dig up some quite interesting stories of what people believed the lights to represent, and still do. These fun and quirky stories will definitely put a smile on your face. They range from land and sea animals, to the lives of goddesses and emperors.
However, one of our favourites is from Estonia. Back then, those belonging to this culture believed that when they saw the lights illuminate the sky, the lights were actually horse drawn carriages, and they were bringing heavenly guests to a beautiful wedding. Sounds like a party!
9 Swedish Lucky Light Legends
Sweden is one of the most popular places to visit to experience the Northern Lights. Due to its location and the high level of tourism that is associated with the Arctic Circle in Sweden, more legends and myths are derived from here.
In Sweden, the lights were seen as good luck and good news. In different regions around Sweden, they were viewed as different, positive merits. The lights were recognized as a gift from the gods in the North, whereas near the fishing communities, the lights guaranteed a promising fishing season that year. We hope this one put a smile on your face.
8 Best Viewing Spot: Fairbanks, Alaska
Your best and most reliable chance to see the Northern Lights in Alaska is in Fairbanks. As the location of the city is just below the arctic circle and situated close-by to many large national parks, it provides the most unique experience for travellers. There is not one specific time of the year that is the best to see the Northern Lights in Fairbanks.
If you are to go between November to January, as the days are much shorter than they are in the summer, almost promising a Northern Lights experience most nights. However, because Fairbanks is inland, referred to as Alaska’s interior, there is a much more dry climate and less humidity, as it is far away from the coasts.
7 Best Viewing Spot: Abisko, Sweden
When we think of the Northern Lights, our mind usually races to the Swedish Lapland. With a majority of tour guides to back this, Abisko and the Aurora Sky Station is the most spectacular place in the world to have this experience. In fact, guests whose trips range from 3 to 5 days, have a 100% success rate of seeing the lights each night of their stay.
The small village of Abisko has one of the lowest cloud coverages, which strengthens your chance of capturing the sky illuminating throughout the night.
6 Best Viewing Spot: Tromso, Norway
Sticking to the Scandinavian theme, the Northern Lights are most well known to be seen in any of these countries. It is quite a different experience experiencing the northern lights in Norway, because you can view them both in a major city centre and in the countryside.
Locals have offered advice to travellers saying that when the lights begin, you can quickly head over to the popular street, Parkgata, which is close to the city park, and see them in a more exclusive setting.
Interestingly enough, you can see the same Northern Lights in different cities in Norway that are as far as 500 miles apart, but from a different angle
5 Best Viewing Spot: Northern Finland
The Finnish have created quite the unique experience for adventurers who are chasing the northern lights. With glass igloos and luxury suites, the Finnish tour companies have created surreal experiences that mask the cold and enable you to focus on the luminous sky- not if your toes are too cold. They are well known for making these experience luxurious and comfortable. While researchers claim that you cannot predict the light show, Finnish locals claim that you experience the Northern Lights on any clear night.
4 Best Viewing Spot: The Northwest Territories and Yukon, Canada
The Great White North is known for more than Tim Horton’s coffee and their love of hockey. 2 of Canada’s territories are home to the best Northern Lights experiences. With the sun setting at 3pm during the fall and winter months in The Northwest Territories, you have a better chance to experience the lights as the days are much longer than more southern provinces in Canada.
Additionally, Yukon offers similar experiences to Northwest Territories, but because it is a more popular territory, there are more day tours and activities that revolve around the lights.
3 Best Viewing Spot: Reykjavik, Iceland
One of the most popular activities to take part in while visiting Iceland is the Northern Lights shows. The capital, Reykjavik, is packed with curious tourists who are bundling up and heading out in groups to hunt for the lights. The lights are what drives the tourism popularity in Iceland.
As the Northern Lights are not always predictable, if you book a tour and do not get to experience the lights, you can book another night for no charge with a majority of tour companies. It pays to be patient!
2 Best Viewing Spot: Murmansk, Russia
Escape the crowded city centre of Moscow, and venture north to the Murmansk Region, situated in the Kola Peninsula. According to Russian Tour Website, Russia Beyond, Murmansk is the world’s largest city beyond the Arctic Circle, populated with 300,00 people.
While this is common for Russian tourists to go there for other leisurely winter sports, it is not as well known for travellers in the Western Hemisphere. The weather in Murmansk is what makes viewing the Northern Lights so enjoyable, as it only drops as low as -10 degrees celsius.
In comparison to Alaska and Sweden, this sounds a lot more appealing to those who aren't too fond of the cold.
1 Best Viewing Spot: Isle of Skye, Scotland
We bet you didn’t plan on seeing Scotland on this list! A magical and serene city, the Isle of Skye often has skies clear of pollution and a beautiful place to glimpse at the stars on any given night.
Though it is not a traditional city to view the Northern Lights. With the wide open area and calming climate, it is not difficult to catch the lights show while you are visiting this country.
References: NASA, Aurora Hunter, The Aurora Zone, Russia Beyond Travel