- What are the Northern Lights?
- What Causes the Northern Lights?
- When Can You See the Northern Lights?
- Where to See the Northern Lights: Alaska
- Where to See the Northern Lights: Pennsylvania
- Where to See the Northern Lights: Canada
- Where to See the Northern Lights: Iceland
- Where to See the Northern Lights: Norway
- Where to See the Northern Lights: Finland
- Where to See the Northern Lights: Sweden
- Where to See the Northern Lights: Greenland
- Where to See the Northern Lights: Scotland
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One of the most beautiful phenomena you can witness in the northern hemisphere is the northern lights, or the Aurora borealis.
The dancing lights are certainly a wonder on their own, but when they’re paired with some truly beautiful landscapes, you have the makings of absolutely breathtaking photos.
That begs the question, where can you see the northern lights?
Let this guide direct you to some of the best vantage points for viewing and photographing the Aurora.
Table of Contents
What are the Northern Lights?
photo by den-belitsky via iStock
Before we dive into where to see them, it’s worth it to explore what they are in the first place and what causes the northern lights.
The Aurora borealis (known as the Aurora australis in the southern hemisphere) is perhaps best known for pale green waves of color that appear to be dancing in the sky.
However, green is just one color that might be present - colors can actually range from yellow to violet and blue to red. Likewise, the dancing waves are just one form they might take. A simple glow in the sky is common, as are arcs of light, beams or rays of light, and streams of light in the night sky.
What Causes the Northern Lights?
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What causes the northern lights is the collision between particles from the sun that hit the Earth’s atmosphere.
More specifically, the electrically-charged particles released from the atmosphere of the sun collide with the gaseous particles in Earth’s atmosphere.
The type of particles involved influences the color of the northern lights.
photo by Frozenmostvia iStock
For example, the most common color of the Aurora is a pale green with yellow undertones. This color is created by oxygen molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, typically at an altitude of 60 miles, but up to 150 miles as well.
Nitrogen molecules are associated with blue and purple Auroras, while red Auroras - the rarest kind - are the result of oxygen molecules at extremely high altitudes of around 200 miles above the surface of the Earth
Get a deeper explanation of what causes the northern lights, and what ancient peoples believed them to be, in the video above by BrainStuff - HowStuffWorks.
When Can You See the Northern Lights?
photo by mantaphoto via iStock
Apart from the obvious necessity of being nighttime, the best time to see the northern lights is in the winter.
Not only are the nights longer in the winter, but clear nights are also in greater abundance, giving you an unobstructed view of the night sky.
The prime time is around midnight local time, as that seems to be the peak of activity for the Aurora. Likewise, Aurora displays are cyclical in nature, and peak with heightened activity roughly every 11 years. This would mean the next “super Aurora” should occur in 2024.
Where to See the Northern Lights
Where are the northern lights? Fortunately, they’re all over the place in the Northern Hemisphere from Canada to Scandinavia, Russia to the continental United States.
But if you want the very best locations to see and photograph them, book a flight to one of the following locations.
Where to See the Northern Lights: Alaska
photo by Elizabeth M. Ruggiero via iStock
Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest city, is situated directly beneath an active band of northern lights activity that runs from August through April, which makes it a prime location for viewing the Aurora.
Typically most active between 11:30 pm and 3:30 am, there’s a significant window during which to take in the beauty of the lights, which range from green to yellow to purple.
Where to See the Northern Lights: Pennsylvania
Yes, that Pennsylvania…
More specifically, Cherry Springs State Park offers uber-dark skies far away from the hustle and bustle of cities like Philadelphia.
In fact, the park utilizes special lights that have zero effect on visibility and there are strict regulations about using headlamps, flashlights, and other light sources. For these reasons, the International Dark-Sky Association has designated the park as a Gold Level International Dark Sky Park, the highest possible ranking.
See the northern lights in action at Cherry Springs State Park in the video above by Gary Honis.
Where to See the Northern Lights: Canada
photo by NatashaWheatley via iStock
Head to the Yukon between August and the middle of April, and you’ll get to see spectacular shows of northern lights that swirl around the sky.
The lights are usually yellow or green (or a combination thereof), though other colors are present less frequently.
The Yukon is also home to the Northern Lights Centre, where you can learn about the scientific processes that cause the lights as well as the legends that peoples of the past developed to explain what the northern lights meant.
photo by Cheryl Ramalho via iStock
Another Canadian hot-spot for the northern lights is Churchill, a town in Manitoba that’s equally as well-known for its polar bear population.
With up to 300 nights of Aurora activity a year, it’s one of the best locations to get a glimpse of the lights.
Where to See the Northern Lights: Iceland
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North, south, east, or west, Iceland offers epic locations for viewing and photographing the northern lights.
With shades of purple, pink, and green jetting across the sky, the combination of optimal nighttime viewing conditions and the rugged and beautiful landscape make this island country a top destination for northern lights photography.
If you’re wondering when you can see the northern lights in Iceland, the answer is about three-fourths of the year - from August to the first part of May.
Where to See the Northern Lights: Norway
photo by BublikPolina via iStock
Though you can view the northern lights from virtually anywhere in Norway, one of the prime viewing locations is Svalbard, a small group of islands roughly halfway between Norway’s northern coast and Greenland.
During the winter, Svalbard is in perpetual darkness because of its extreme northern location. That means you can view the northern lights day or night!
photo by mantaphoto via iStock
Another spot to check out in Norway is the city of Tromsø, which is right underneath an oval of lights in Northern Norway. Surrounded by fjords and mountains, it’s a breathtaking setting by itself, but under the glow of the northern lights, it’s even more spectacular.
Where to See the Northern Lights: Finland
photo by mantaphoto via iStock
Like Norway, Finland offers excellent viewing of the northern lights from virtually every corner of the country.
In fact, Finland experiences about 200 nights of the Aurora per year, so there’s no lack of time to grab your gear and snap some photos of the lights. The rural nature of much of Finland also means there’s an abundance of areas with little to no light pollution.
Where to See the Northern Lights: Sweden
photo by Oksana_Gracheva via iStock
Of course, Sweden, like the other Scandanavian countries on this list, offers excellent Aurora viewing.
Of particular interest should be the Aurora Sky Station, location in Abisko. With very little light pollution and clear, crisp skies, you can get epic views of the lights all night long from October through March.
Where to See the Northern Lights: Greenland
photo by RubyRascal via iStock
Greenland is an ideal location for photographing the northern lights because of its minimal light pollution. Likewise, visibility is often crystal clear for perfect views of the sky.
If you visit between September and April, you’re all but guaranteed to see the lights along with the Milky Way for a double-dip of celestial awesomeness!
Where to See the Northern Lights: Scotland
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Though Scotland likely didn’t come to mind when you were searching for “where are the northern lights,” it’s a fantastic viewing spot, particularly in the far north, light the Shetland Islands.
Here, the northern lights are called Mirrie Dancers, and can be seen throughout the fall and winter months.
With that, you have some of the best places on earth to see the northern lights. Make plans to travel to one of these excellent locations this winter!