It can feel nearly impossible to you access a sense of wonder in today's all-the-information-any-time-you-want-it environment, but the answer, I find, is often in the natural world. Whether it's feeling the strange cool breeze that arises during the totality of an eclipse, watching a thousand-strong starling murmuration swirl in the sky, or tasting fresh mango plucked from the tree in front of you, our sensory experience of Earth's pleasures — even if we know exactly how and why they happen — can reacquaint us with wonder.
So it is with auroras. You can understand their mechanism — I'll cover that below — but it's one of those things that has to be experienced bodily, live-in-person to be understood. Which explains why people arrange trips and holidays around the chance to do just that. Here's what to know if you've been thinking about travelling to see aurora.
What is an aurora anyway?
The otherworldly undulations of colourful light are actually the result of some very specific earthly and cosmic phenomena. When our magnetosphere (which typically protects us from solar radiation) gets disturbed by solar winds, "...the charged particles collide and ionise with trace amounts of nitrogen and oxygen in the upper atmosphere, causing them to emit light when they recombine," explains Khee-Gan Lee, an astrophysicist and NASA Hubble Fellow.
Usually seen in shades of bright and glimmering green and aqua, more rare sightings of red and blue lights also occur. "They appear in these distinctive colours because, like a laser, these recombination lines occur at specific narrow wavelengths of light rather than in a broad spectrum like sunlight," said Lee. These are not static lights, like a rainbow — they move in response to the solar wind, undulating due to the natural "springy" qualities of Earth's magnetic field lines, according to Lee.
The lights can only be seen in the auroral zone, which is only about three to six degrees of latitude wide at about 10-20 degrees from the poles (northern or southern) — which is why some people call them polar lights — and can only be seen against the dark backdrop of the night sky.
How can you see one?
Unless you happen to live in one of the zones pretty far north (or south) where auroras naturally occur, you're going to have to travel to see one of the gorgeous displays. Iceland is a popular location, easily accessible from the east coast of the US — including flights that will stop over there on your way from the US to the UK or Europe. (Icelandair and WOW airlines both offer free stopovers.)
Lapland, the indigenous Sami cultural region that includes northern areas of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia, is another prime viewing area. Alaska in the US and the Yukon in Canada are good options if you want to stay in North America, and the lights are also found in the islands and highlands of Scotland (though it tends to be cloudier there than some of the other locations mentioned, which can limit visibility). In the southern hemisphere, the lights are known as Aurora Australis, and are visible from some of the southernmost latitudes in Australia and New Zealand, as well as Chile and Argentina in South America, and also Antarctica.
Wherever you decide to go, you'll need to give yourself enough time to be able to see them — auroras don't turn up every night, or on any kind of predictable schedule, like, say, the moon or the tides. However, those in the know can make reasonable forecasts based on short-term solar flare activity. To see Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere, the best time of year is November-early March. Flip that for the southern hemisphere; the Aurora Australis season begins in March and goes through their winter.
Lola Akinmade Åkerström, an award-winning Stockholm-based author and photographer with National Geographic Creative, has seen auroras five times, and says that you should plan a window of at least three to five days to be sure that if you travel somewhere to see the lights, you will have a good shot at observing them at least one of the nights you travel. She also advises working with local guides who are aurora-chasing experts: "They know where to go and especially when to go, and they are always monitoring aurora websites and NASA feeds for activity," Akerstrom said.
What you'll see
Expect a light show — with colours and activity determined by the cosmic forces that most of us don't really keep track of. The light may come in bands, lines, or spread out over the sky, and it may move in various ways, from rippling to appearing and disappearing. Taking a good photograph of aurora can be a challenge, so if you plan to do so, read through a guide or two and come prepared. It goes almost without saying that bundling up in warm clothes will be a simple but important part of enjoying the lights without focusing on frozen toes. And yes, you may even hear something — though debated for years, recent science has proven that auroras do make some quiet and eerie sounds.
Åkerström says her most memorable Northern Lights experience was when she stayed at the Nutti Sami Siida reindeer lodge in Northern Sweden. "After a simple dinner of reindeer prepared by elder Anders Kärrstedt, he walked out of the wooden lodge we were sitting in into the dark winter night and scanned the horizon for signs of the aurora," said Åkerström. After waiting for a bit with just gentle flashes here and there, Kärrstedt predicted that lights should appear in a couple of hours. "Like clockwork, the lights started to appear a few minutes past 9PM and then they burst through the sky with vibrant greens, purples and pinks," said Åkerström, crediting Kärrstedt's local knowledge and experience with his ability to know when the best show would be.
You could also just get lucky
It's actually not uncommon to see auroras from planes on long-haul routes that go over or near the poles. Called the "Polar Route" or "Santa's Shortcut" by people in the aviation business, these routes have been opened up since 1998, and can give a unique perspective on Northern Lights, since you are kilometres above the earth's surface. Be sure to choose a window seat (always a great idea; you can see incredible sights from 9000m above the earth) and keep your eye on your in-seat guidance system to determine when you'll be near the poles. Seattle-based writer Cat Bohannon was returning to the US from China in 2003 when she was somewhere above the Bering Sea and a rustle of conversation went through the cabin.
"Just outside, big ribbons of coloured light were snaking through the sky," Bohannon told Lifehacker. "It was the strangest thing — level, it seemed, with our plane, just a few miles out. I bundled up my flimsy blue aeroplane blanket and pulled it around my head like a hood while I looked out the window. I couldn't stop staring out at those ribbons of light. You could really see their structure, up there, their height, where they stopped and started in the atmosphere. And you could see them moving. Like something alive."