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Discovering Adventure: The Greatest Light Show on Earth

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Discovering Adventure: The Greatest Light Show on Earth

Why the Aurora is the greatest free show you will ever see

The streaking lights of the Aurora are, simply put, the greatest light show on earth and best of all they're free to anyone who is in the right place at the right time. But what exactly are they, and why do they only appear at certain times? Why too are they so hard to predict?

Now that we’re well and truly into Aurora season here in the northern hemisphere, I thought it might be the ideal time to take a much closer look at it. Let’s begin.


Those oh so pretty lights in the sky, the Aurora, or more specifically the Aurora Borealis if you’re in the northern hemisphere and Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere.


In short, the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis are a natural phenomenon known as Polar Lights or Aurora Polaris and these are caused by solar activity colliding with the earth’s magnetic field.

Northern Lights above a cottage

Photo source: - berlinrider


Well that’s some question that is! How long is a piece of string? I’m afraid there is no definitive answer to such questions. However, all is not entirely lost as there are tips and strategies to help you predict an Aurora sighting. For instance, we know that like both you and I, our sun has a heartbeat. However, whereas our hearts beat at a rate of around 60-100 beats per minute, the suns heart beats around once every 11 years. This time span is known as a solar cycle and that that Aurora’s are most likely to take place on that 11 th year as Solar Maximum is reached. Solar Maximum is when peak solar activity takes place (Duh!). Solar Maximum was last reach in 2014, but solar activity will still be fairly strong up until the end of 2017 or so (think of the activity as a wave), becoming rarer thereafter until around 2022 (at a guess), when activity starts to ramp up again before peaking in 2025.

We also know that the best months for an Aurora sighting are between October and March and that the best times are between 10pm and 2am. Both of these factors allude to the fact that in order for you to be able to see the Polar Lights, the sky has to be really dark!

Added to the above is of course the internet and a number of online tools which can help you out. Unfortunately, such tools are only so accurate and only become more accurate nearer the time of an Aurora, by which time flight prices and accommodation charges are probably at their most costly. While leaving it till the last minute to go on an Aurora hunting trip does give you a greater chance of a sighting, it’ll also likely be more expensive … worth it though in my opinion.

Northern Lights Sea

Photo source: - leppre


Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Russia and Norway are usually good places to start, but exactly where on earth you can witness the Aurora depends on the strength of light activity.

In recent years, Aurora as far south as Manchester (UK) have been spotted.


Right, here comes the science part.

So the origin of the Aurora begins on the sun’s surface when solar activity ejects a cloud of gas. Scientists call the ejection of such a gas cloud a coronal mass ejection (CME).

If a CME reaches earth (this takes about 2 to 3 days) it will collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. The more CME’s colliding with the earth’s magnetic field equals the greater chance of an Aurora, as those CME’s colliding with atoms in the earth’s magnetic field are what cause the lights. The initial collisions cause the atom within our magnetic field to move into a higher-energy state (the electrons within the atoms move further away from the nucleus), but after a while the atoms return back to their original energy state. It is when the atoms are in the process of returning to their original state that they release light as a by-product … light, the lights, the Aurora!

An Aurora is usually observed in an arced shape and this is because they are following the lines of the earth’s magnetic field. The different colours given off are linked to the makeup of gases within the earth’s magnetic field at the point of collision by the CME(s). Altitude of the collision is also said to play a role.

It’s all very simple hey!?

Northern Lights Aurora Borealis

Photo source: - rodeime

So there you have all the W’s answered around Solar Lights - and just a few reasons as to why they’re the greatest lightshow on earth. Even if you don’t really understand or care about the science part, it’s hard to argue that there are many better lights shows out there and definitely not for free.That the Aurora is difficult to ‘find’ and does not follow a set pattern or routine just adds another dimension to how special they are.

They’re just amazing, and I’ll leave you with one last photo from my personal collection, taken in Reykjavik, Iceland. One of my fave travel moments ever.

Iceland Northern Lights

Photo source: Backpacks and Bunkbeds
Author: Neil Barnes travels the world on a budget whilst holding down a 9-5, read more about him on Backpacks and Bunkbeds

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