What’s The Aurora Borealis And Where Can You See It?

By C.L. Illsley on September 15 2020 in Did You Know

The Aurora Borealis. Image credit: Ken Phung/Shutterstock
The Aurora Borealis. Image credit: Ken Phung/Shutterstock
  • The Aurora Borealis is also known as the Northern Lights or Polar Lights.
  • Alaska is the best place in the US to see this natural phenomenon.
  • Peak viewing times to see the Aurora Borealis in Canada are between December and March.

Also known as the Northern or Polar Lights, the natural phenomenon known as the Aurora Borealis takes the form of an often spectacular natural light show which occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with gaseous particles already present in the Earth's atmosphere. This multicoloured display can only be seen over the Earth's northern and southern magnetic poles. Although in the northern hemisphere this phenomenon is called the Aurora Borealis (meaning "dawn of the north") in the south this naturally occurring light show is referred to as the Aurora Australis (or "dawn of the south"). The origin of this name comes from Roman mythology which included the figure of Aurora who was considered to be the goddess of the dawn.

Aurora Borealis lighting displays may take the form of patches, shooting rays, arcs, diffused clouds, or streams of multi-coloured light. The colors can range from shades of blue, yellow, violet, red, and to the more commonly occurring pale pink and green. The different colors occur depending on which particular types of gaseous particles are present in the atmosphere. For example, a pale yellowish-green hue appears due to the presence of oxygen molecules some sixty miles above the Earth. Conversely, all-red auroras, which are rarer to see, are created because of oxygen located at heights of up to two hundred miles. Blue or shades of purple are due to the atmospheric presence of nitrogen.  

Ideally, the best places from which to observe the Aurora Borealis are in isolated areas far away from the glare of the city where there is little to no so-called "light pollution." In geographic terms, your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are best in the belt-like area some 1,500 to 2,000 miles away from the magnetic north pole.  Other regions in which to take in this unique natural occurrence can be found in northwestern portions of Alaska and Canada as well as in certain locations in an array of northern states including Minnesota, Maine, and North Dakota. 

The Aurora Borealis ranges in colors and depends on what gases are found in the atmosphere that interact with electric particles from the sunlight. Image credit: stephen Carter/Shutterstock

Alaska

There's no doubt that the farther north you go, the better your chances are of seeing the impressive Northern Lights. Alaska, aptly nicknamed The Last Frontier State, is the northernmost state in the US and the best place in America to see this awe-inspiring natural light show. The ideal time to spot the Aurora Borealis in Alaska is from the middle of September to late April. The natural phenomenon peaks during the month of March. The optimal location from which to view the Northern Lights is at a latitude of between 65 and 70 degrees north. 

Specific communities from which to witness the Aurora Borealis within the state of Alaska include the former gold rush town of Fairbanks, the isolated region of Coldfoot, and Utqiaqvik (formerly known as Barrow).  

Canada

The best places in Canada in which to see the Aurora Borealis are in the Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories. Although the phenomenon can be seen here year-round, the peak viewing period occurs between the months of December and March.  

Other Parts of the US 

Although there have been reported sightings of the Aurora Borealis as far south as New Orleans, Louisana, more northernly locales are optimal for viewing this natural phenomenon. Toward the end of the spring season, the Nothern Lights have been observed in Montana's Glacier National Park. They have also been sighted in northeastern Cook County in Minnesota during the late fall until early in the springtime. Around this same time period, Aurora Borealis has also been observed near Headlands International Dark Sky Park, located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, as well as in Grand Fork, North Dakota, the Idaho Dark Sky Reserve in the state of Idaho, and in Maine's Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge. 

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