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Northern Lights: All Your Questions Answered

by Waterproof Expeditions

Admiring the dancing green Northern Lights in the sky is a magical experience. We’ve seen them during our Ice Diving trips at the White Sea, during expedition cruises to Greenland and on our voyages through the fjords of Northern Norway. We have gathered some frequently asked questions about this unique natural light show!

What are Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are a luminous glow of our earth’s upper atmosphere. This is caused by energetic particles from the sun colliding with oxygen and nitrogen particles in the atmosphere. This event happens around the magnetic North Pole (called Aurora Borealis) and South Pole (Aurora Australis). The Northern Lights, or Aurora, often appear as dancing green, red and purple lights in the night sky. This seemingly magical appearance has captivated people for millennia. Even today it is a bucket list item for many travelers.

What causes the Northern Lights?

The solar wind is the outermost atmosphere of our sun. The sun is so hot that it boils off its outer layers, and the result is a constant outward expanding very thin gas. This solar wind consists of protons and electrons. When these protons and electrons hit the earth’s magnetosphere they cause colorful displays in our skies.

Where is the Best Place to see Northern Lights?

The best places are high northern latitudes during the winter (approximately from October to March). The Northern Lights usually appear in a ring around the North Pole which is called the Auroral Oval. This circle is centered around the earth’s true north, which causes the best spots to be at various latitudes. Good locations in the Arctic are Northern NorwayCanadaGreenland, Iceland and Alaska in winter. During very large auroral events, they can be visible throughout the US and Europe, but those events are very rare.Aurora Oval

Can you predict when and where there will be Northern Lights?

Yes, but with less certainty than weather prediction. The ultimate energy source for the Northern Lights is the sun. When the solar wind is calm, we tend to have very little activity. When the solar wind is very strong and perturbed, we have a chance of intense displays. It takes around 3 days for the sun’s particles to reach earth, for this reason Aurora forecasts usually don’t look any further than 3 days ahead.

What is the best year for Northern Lights?

The Sun undergoes an approximate eleven-year cycle, based on the solar activity. During solar minimum periods, sunspots are scarce, and solar activity tends to be low. During solar maximum phases, numerous sunspots emerge, resulting in an increased incidence of solar storms. These solar storms have the potential to trigger very powerful Northern Lights. The Space Weather Prediction Center of the USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, forecasted a strong peak of activity, with solar maximum anticipated between 2024 and 2025. We have already seen incredible Aurora displays this past winter, and we expect winter 2024-2025 to offer even better conditions for observing the Aurora Borealis in the Arctic!

DO NORTHERN LIGHTS APPEAR IN DIFFERENT COLORS?

The composition and density of the atmosphere and the altitude of the particles determine the possible light emissions. This makes various colours, ranging from red to green and even violet. The Northern Lights are most often seen in green, because this colour is produced when the particles collide with oxygen, and green is a colour which our eyes can see well.

This video was taken during one of our expeditions in Northern Norway last year. We were lucky to witness an incredibly strong and colourful display of Aurora right above our ship.

CAN YOU SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS WITH THE NAKED EYE?

Yes, you can definitely see the Northern Lights with you own eyes! However, the lights don’t always have the same strength. When there is a lot of solar activity, the Northern Lights will be very strong and you can see them clearly with the naked eye. When the aurora is weak, you might only see a faint green glow in the sky, like a cloud. Or you might not even see them at all until you take a picture with adjusted shutter speed.

WHAT IS AURORA KP-INDEX?

The strength of the Northern Lights is measured by a KP-index, ranging from 0 (very faint) to 9 (extreme). When the KP-index is around 3 or higher you should be able to see it clearly with the naked eye. Even if KP-index is low, you might still be able to see something. One moment the Aurora might be hardly visible, while a few minutes later, it can gain strength and perform a beautiful display.

DO THE NORTHERN LIGHTS HAVE ANY EFFECT ON THE ENVIRONMENT?

Yes but it is limited to the high latitude atmosphere. Since it takes place at about 90-100 km altitude, only the atmosphere at or above that height is affected. Some ionization may occur a few tens of kilometers further down, and can have effects on radio wave propagation.

CAN YOU HEAR THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?

This is a difficult question to answer. There is no scientific evidence for this. The upper atmosphere is too thin to carry sound waves, and the aurora is so far away that it would take a sound wave 5 minutes to travel from an overhead display to the ground. But many people claim that they hear something at the same time when the lights are visible in the sky, this is often described as whistling, hissing, bristling, or swooshing. Maybe you should experience it yourself to answer this question.

WHY DO NORTHERN LIGHTS MOVE LIKE CURTAINS?

The particles from the sun move through our earth’s atmosphere at high speeds, but the magnetic field confines the motion of auroral electrons, creating a beautiful wave motion. Think of it as pained magnetic field lines.

WHAT IS BLACK AURORA?

Sometimes you can have diffuse auroral curtains and arcs that have small gaps. These gaps are usually thinner that the arc thickness next to the gap and they look like a black aurora curtain embedded in the bright glow around them.

NORTHERN LIGHTS CRUISE

An expedition cruise is a perfect way to spot the incredible Northern Lights in real life. Our expedition cruises in Northern Norway take you on a trip through the beautiful Norwegian fjords. During winter, you can enjoy long nights and total darkness, ideal circumstances for Northern Lights watching. As an added bonus, you also have great chances to to spot whales, orcas, white-tailed eagles and more wild animals!

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