The phenomenon sometimes known as northern lights should in most cases be called aurora or polar light. And why not the northern lights? Because they can be encountered in both north and south, so “northern lights” doesn’t really cover the term well. Additionally, polar lights are also sometimes referred to with their Latin names: northern lights – aurora borealis and southern lights – aurora australis. Whew! That’s a lot of names!

What causes the northern lights?

So now we know how to correctly call aurora, but a more important question remains: what are the northern lights? For aurora to form, a stream of charged particles – called solar wind – needs to be released from the atmosphere of the Sun.  Those particles then travel to Earth’s magnetosphere, where they precipitate into the thermosphere due to Earth’s magnetic field. This is where they slow down, losing some of their energy. Then the ionization and excitation o atmospheric components result in emitting light.

Where to see northern lights?

Where can I see the northern lights? As the name suggests, the best places to see the lights are closer to polar regions. Aurora borealis can be observed in far regions of the USA like Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland or Russian. And since we know where to go to see northern lights, let’s talk about southern lights: aurora australis is best seen in Antarctica, Australia, New Zeeland, Chile, and Argentina.

Best time and place to see northern lights would be in one of those locations during  March, September or October when the lights are the most common. It’s important to remember that though they occur throughout the whole year, during the midnight sun (from May to August) it cannot be seen with a naked eye. You can also use real-time aurora borealis forecast, which is created based on the data about solar winds – the primary cause of northern lights.