How to Spot The Northern Lights

The colorful nighttime displays of the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, are notoriously finicky to spot.

If the marriage of location, weather, and timing all come together perfectly, you will be in for the light show of a lifetime. The sun creates the Northern Lights via solar wind, sunspots, and coronal mass ejections (CME) or coronal holes (CH). The plasma emitted from these solar events includes electrons and protons that stimulate oxygen and hydrogen in our upper atmosphere. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from most of this but some gets funneled down along the poles and this is where things start to light up and why the closer you get to the pole, the better the display.

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Solar wind does produce Northern Lights but most of the time it will be a static arc since it is constantly flowing from the sun. For a more vibrant display to happen, a CME or CH is needed—when a large CME hits the Earth’s atmosphere, the Northern Lights can release energy equivalent to that of a small nuclear bomb.

The Northern Lights emit different colors-most are greenish yellow but sometimes the tall rays will turn red at the top and along the lower edges. The color depends on at which altitude the electrically charged particles hit the atmospheric gas along with different energy levels of the particles. On rare occasion, sunlight will hit the top part of the ray to create a faint blue color.

Tips for Northern Lights Viewing

  • Unless you live near the Arctic, plan on traveling. Some of the best locations include Iceland, Svalbard in Norway, Finland, Sweden, and parts of Alaska and northern Canada
  • Clouds are a key factor as the Northern Lights occur above our weather system. You need a fairly clear night to get lucky.
  • Get out away from the city lights in order to see them clearly.
  • October to late March are statistically the best periods.
  • The best time to view the light show is between 9:00 pm and 2:00 am.
  • Beware the full moon-the bright light might spoil your chances.

northern lights manitoba Canada

Tips for Photographing Northern Lights

  • You are going to need more than an iPhone to get the shot. You need a camera where you can manually adjust the settings.
  • And forgo the standard default mode. Set your camera as follows: exposure to 20 seconds, aperture to 3.5 or lower, and ISO to 800.
  • Don’t forget the tripod–you will need a steady surface for long exposure photography. From there, experiment as you start to see the results, if it’s too dark, keep the exposure open longer, and play with the right ISO setting so that you get powerful images but avoid any pixelation.

northern lights above cabin in Manitoba Canada

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