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FAQ: The Northern Lights

  • Date: 12 September 2012
  • Author: Dean J. Tatooles, WWF Travel Guest Blogger
  • Comments

At some point in our lives, each of us has either heard stories about or seen images of dancing lights in the far north of our planet. Undoubtedly, this spectacle is beautiful, but what exactly are the “Northern Lights” and where do they come from?

Below, we hope to answer these and a few other common questions about this eerie natural anomaly.

What are the Northern Lights?
The “Northern Lights” or Aurora Borealis are a series of discharged particles (or solar wind) emanating from our sun that penetrate earth’s magnetic shield and create light when combined with atoms and molecules (such as nitrogen and oxygen) when entering our atmosphere.

How far do these particles travel before colliding with Earth?
The discharged particles travel over 150 million kilometers or about 90 million miles through space towards earth before being drawn in to the Polar Regions by our planet’s magnetic force. Amazingly, solar wind only takes about 2 to 3 days to travel this staggering distance!

Are they harmful to us or our planet?
No, solar wind collisions with earth’s magnetic field occurs in the upper atmosphere and the charged particles and do not come close to humans. At best, a high dose of solar wind may disturb radio communications, induce voltage surges in power lines or create a minor overloads in orbiting satellites.

What colors are found as part of the Northern Lights?
The short answer: it depends on what types of gasses the discharged particles collide with. Collisions with oxygen typically produce green and yellow lights while contact with nitrogen results in reds, violets and blues.

What kinds of shapes can the Northern Lights take on?
Light shapes can be both static and dynamic in the night sky. During periods of minimal solar flares, shapes are less prominent and do not vary in definition or color. On the other hand, during periods of strong flares, the Northern Lights swirl, dance and even race in column formations sporadically throughout the night sky!

Where and when to see the Northern Lights?
The best place to view the lights firsthand is to visit a location in latitudes in the Arctic Circle from 68 degrees to 74 degrees.  The best time of year to travel to see the lights is in winter months—due to low light pollution and clear atmospheric conditions.

What are my chances of seeing the Northern Lights?
During autumn and winter months north of the Arctic Circle chances are very good, especially when periods of high pressure present. Avoiding urban areas and coordinating your viewing during new moon cycles can improve your chances as well.

See the Northern Lights with WWF.

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