In Search of the Polar Lights – The Northern Lights & Southern Lights
The Northern Lights are a great attraction for those of us who wander with a purpose on our vacations and an unexpected delight for those of us who don’t.
What exactly are the Northern Lights?
Let’s begin with the sun. Explosions happen all the time with the heat intensity of the solar surface sending out charged electronic particles on “solar winds”. Reaching the earth these particles interact with the earth’s magnetic force and gas particles in our atmosphere. Different molecules reacting with the charged particles in the winds result in different colors. Oxygen in the lower altitudes results in pale yellow to green (most common); nitrogen gases produce blue and maroon (purple red) hues. All red is a rarer sight and is the product of collision of high-altitude oxygen with the solar winds.
Uncommon Red Polar Lights
Image: Nelly Volkovich on UnSplash.
I heard they are disappearing?
The intensity and activity of the lights has also been found to be cyclical. They peak every eleven years, approximately. The next peak will be around 2024 so plan your vacation or expedition now to see the best version of the lights. Though the northern and southern lights are reflective of each other as they come from the same solar winds, the 11-year cycle due to the sun’s activity appears to affect the northern ones more so the southern ones are always an option if the optimal time is not right for a northern visit.
Yukon, Canada Display
What time of year is best to view the lights?
Winter is always the best season as the nights are longer. (Don’t forget that winter in the southern hemisphere is our summer in North America.) Just with any star gazing, the darker the night sky the better. Big cities or densely populated areas are out not only for the artificial lighting reflected in the sky but for any air pollution as well. Stay up late to view (midnight to 2 AM).
Did you say southern lights?
Polar lights, as the name suggests, are more prevalent near the earth’s north and south poles where the magnetic fields are weaker. So, there are actually two areas of choice for viewing: the Northern Lights also known as the Aurora Borealis, and the Southern Lights also known as Aurora Australis. These light shows can be rays shooting through the night sky, or curtains of rippling light, or just vast clouds of color. They are brief, lasting from perhaps minutes to hours. The latter occurrence is uncommon, at most expect to have a half hour of marveling at the display. And you have to be lucky to observe the lights at all as there is no schedule, and if taking photos, be prepared in advance to catch your fleeting shot of nature’s theater.
Lofoten Islands, Norway
What are the best destinations for viewing?
In the northern hemisphere there are many land-based and cruise vacations that get you near prime viewing areas for the Northern Lights. Think anywhere in Alaska, the Yukon, Northwest Territories or Nunavet in Canada’s north, Iceland, southern Greenland or the northern lands of Norway, Sweden or Finland. Most of these places have more to offer than the lights and are popular destinations for many other reasons should you wish to hedge your bets in case the lights do not make an appearance.
Hurtigruten Cruises, a Norwegian cruise line that plies the waters off the coast of Norway (and elsewhere world-side), offers a Northern Lights guarantee of a free cruise if you do not see the polar lights on your cruise. Of course, you must be on specific itineraries at key times of the year – but with that kind of guarantee, it seems to be a sure bet if that is to be the major attraction of your vacation!
In the southern hemisphere, one is looking primarily near Antarctica or the islands or waters nearby. This would entail specialized land expeditions or, more likely, cruise expeditions. The lights can be seen a bit further north if you know where to go. Stewart Island, New Zealand has the Rakiura (Land of the Glowing Skies) National Park or the Aoraki MacKenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. In the South Sandwich Islands, visit South Georgia Island. Australia is getting a bit too far “north” for reliable viewing but Cockle Creek in Tasmania is another suggestion. Going east across the Pacific, consider Ushuaia in Argentina or the Falklands in the Atlantic Ocean.
You do not hear of these Southern Lights as often as their counterpart in the north as access to easy viewing, as you can see, is not as appealing to many vacationers with the possible exceptions of visits to Tasmania and New Zealand. Otherwise, you must be a true adventurer!
A Display in Finland
Image: Ozgu Ozden on Unsplash
Plan Your Polar Lights Vacation
Note that while these polar lights “hot spots” are perhaps some of the best places to view this night show, you may see the lights occasionally no matter where you are if not far from the prime areas of the magnetic poles. (think northern Scotland, Shetland Islands, and the like). The lights have been reported even as far south as the Southern States on occasion! You could happen on them anytime, anywhere but if they are one of the main attractions you are seeking, plan to visit the areas mentioned and during the suggested time ranges. Check with your travel expert to plan your trip of a lifetime to where Mother Nature puts on this amazing display.
Oh, it was wild and weird and wan, and ever in camp o’ nights
We would watch and watch the silver dance of the mystic Northern Lights.
And soft they danced from the Polar sky and swept in primrose haze;
And swift they pranced with their silver feet, and pierced with a blinding blaze.
They danced a cotillion in the sky; they were rose and silver shod;
It was not good for the eyes of man — ‘Twas a sight for the eyes of God.
– Robert Service from “The Ballad of the Northern Lights”