Everyone recognizes a picture of the Northern Lights, but not many of us know what causes these epic displays of color in the night sky. Fewer still are lucky enough to both see them in person and, nearly as importantly, capture 'em on Snapchat. And that's a shame, because not only are the lights insanely gorgeous, they're actually really interesting. Even if you're not a science nerd.
The Northern Lights also get called 'Aurora Borealis', named after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek word for the northern wind. But while the name comes from myth, there's actually a bunch of solar winds and gaseous particles to thank for this spectacle, not any fantastical gods. How's that for pub quiz trivia?
So, about those solar winds and gaseous particles. When the two interact with the earth's magnetosphere, Auroras (AKA polar light), occurs over the earth's geomagnetic poles. It's the poles that steal the show because the earth's magnetic field is weaker in these spots, allowing some of the charged particles from the solar wind to enter our atmosphere. Still with us?
Once in our atmosphere, these particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen gas molecules. The resulting energy of these collisions is released in the form of dazzling lights, which dance anywhere from 50 miles to 400 miles above the surface of the earth.
The Aurora Borealis is typically green or yellowy-green, as you probs know. But you might not know that the type of gas colliding with the solar wind's particles and the amount of energy resulting from this collision can cause different colored hues to light up the night sky.
Collisions that occur with oxygen particles at a higher altitude can cause a spooky red color; while collisions with nitrogen makes for a blue or purplish tinge. The Aurora can also create ultraviolet light, which isn't visible to the naked eye, so has to be observed with special equipment.
The Northern Lights can even form arcs, curtains, or even just slight glows of light. The sweeping curtain shape, the most recognized, is formed by parallel rays of light that align with the direction of the earth's magnetic field.
Okay, enough geeking out – now for practical matters like where to see the Aurora Borealis. Well, since these light shows occur near the poles, you basically need to journey as far north as you can. The best place for this in the US is Alaska, and in Canada it's the tundra (Yukon, Nunavut etc.). Greenland, Finland, Iceland, and Russia are also great spots for chasing them.
Your chances of seeing the Northern Lights very much fall into the category of "in the right place at the right time." Annoying, right? You need a dark sky for the light to be visible, so you're more likely to see them in the winter months when the days are shorter. Obviously you'll have to be up at night or the early hours of the morning for this (post-clubbing light show, anyone?).
Sometimes a solar storm will stretch the magnetic field and make the northern lights visible in places far more southern than you'd expect. In late October this year people caught sight of this natural wonder in states like New York and Minnesota, and even further down in the Midwest.
Last up, you don't actually have to be in the northern hemisphere to catch the show. This natural phenomenon has a southern counterpart, known as Aurora Australis, and surprise surprise, the colors overhead are equally gorgeous. The main difference between the northern and southern lights is where you see them – they've been spotted in Australia, Antarctica, Argentina, Chile, and New Zealand.
They say a picture is worth 1000 words, and when faced with the wonder of this natural light show you might just find yourself at a loss for the right hashtag for the first time... It's THAT impressive.