The Aurora Borealis, meaning ‘dawn of the north’ and Aurora Australia, meaning ‘dawn of the south’ have been a source of wonder for thousands of years, igniting many cultural legends in both hemispheres. They’re fascinating, elusive and are bound to leave you totally speechless when you see them. Bex, Digital Marketing Executive and self-confessed Northern Lights enthusiast, sheds some light on the natural phenomenon, explaining everything you need to know in order to tick the Aurora off your bucket list.
What are they?
The mesmerising Aurora Borealis (in the northern hemisphere) and Aurora Australia (in the southern hemisphere) are created when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with particles of gas in the earth’s atmosphere creating the light, and it is the type of gas that affects what color the Aurora will be. The most common color, a yellowish green, is produced by oxygen particles that are located approximately 60 miles above the earth. Less common (but equally beautiful) red auroras are caused by high altitude oxygen at heights of around 200 miles above the earth and the blueish purple auroras are due to nitrogen.
Scientists have discovered the connection between sunspot activity and the appearance of the Aurora – the charged particles from the sun that react with gases reach our atmosphere by being blown across from the sun in solar winds, which tend to happen when sun spot activity increases, also known as a solar flare. Most of the particles from the sun are deflected from our atmosphere by the earth’s magnetic field, but the magnetic field is weaker at the north and south poles, which is why the Auroras are usually seen very far north and south in an oval shape centerd around the poles. It’s also been discovered that in most cases, the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis are often mirror-like images that occur at the same time.
Where to see them
The best places to see the Aurora Borealis are in or just below the Arctic Circle, in northern Scandinavia, Iceland, Alaska and Canada, particularly the Yukon and Northwest Territories. However, depending on the strength of the Aurora, which is measured on a KP scale, the northern lights can often be seen in southern Scandinavia, Scotland and sometimes reach as far south as northern Europe. They aren’t visible if the sky is cloudy and it’s best to head to somewhere with minimal light pollution on a clear, dark night (avoiding a full moon) to be in with the best chance of spotting them, avoiding cities and large towns.
When to see them
They appear year-round, but the long hours of darkness in the winter months allow a larger window of viewing time. The best time of year to see the Northern Lights is between October to March and the best time of year to see the Southern Lights is between April to August.