The Northern Lights are noted as one of the most beautiful attractions in not only the Arctic, but the world. For generations, humans have observed the Northern Lights and how they turn the night sky into a panoply of brilliant colors, inspiring many myths and legends. With aurora tourism now popular among many people around the world, some are asking an important question: are the Northern Lights dangerous to humans?

The answer is no. While the Northern Lights are generated by solar activity, observing them from the ground is not harmful to humans in any way. While there are some circumstances in which auroras could pose a threat to humans, these situations are so rare and specific that it is almost impossible to encounter any of them. Read on to learn why the Northern Lights are not harmful to humans.

Are the Northern Lights Dangerous to Humans?

The Northern Lights are a phenomenon generated by the Earth’s interaction with the sun. Solar wind, the term used for the particles given off by the sun at regular intervals, regularly comes into contact with Earth. The magnetosphere, a protective barrier surrounding the Earth and generated by its magnetic field, deflects solar wind and prevents it from reaching the surface. This is good because solar wind is full of radiation and dangerous to humans.

Much of the magnetosphere extends outwards into space, but at the North and South Pole, the source of the planet’s magnetic field, the magnetosphere intersects with the atmosphere. It is at these locations where the vast majority of auroras occur. When charged particles from the sun collide with air molecules in the atmosphere, they create a chemical reaction that is visible as the Northern Lights.

All matter in the universe is composed of atoms, and atoms are composed of three types of particle: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons carry a positive electrical charge and neutrons carry no charge; they are located in the nucleus, the center of the atom. Electrons carry a negative electrical charge and orbit the nucleus in a manner similar to how the moon orbits the Earth or the Earth orbits the sun.

When charged particles from the sun come into contact with the atmosphere, the atoms composing the atmosphere become excited, meaning that their electrons migrate to higher-energy orbits that are further away from the nucleus. When this excitement ends, the electrons return to their original orbits, giving off a photon—a unit of light—in the process. When many atoms become excited all at once, this creates a large amount of light, causing auroras.

The fact that auroras are created by solar wind might make them sound dangerous to view, given solar wind being deadly to human life. However, auroras are evidence that the Earth’s magnetosphere is doing its job in protecting the planet from harmful interstellar radiation. Moreover, auroras occur at such a high altitude that it is impossible for them to affect anyone who is observing them on the ground. Because of this, auroras are safe to view. Additionally, since auroras don’t involve the sun (indeed, it is impossible to auroras to form if the sun is shining), you don’t need a pair of special glasses to observe them like you do with solar eclipses.

While auroras are not harmful to humans, they do potentially pose risks to certain types of machines and technology. Auroras release a large amount of electricity when they occur which is capable of reaching the ground. In certain circumstances, this electricity can cause damage to or destroy power lines, computers, and more. However, auroras of this strength are extremely rare, and given that they generally occur in the Arctic Circle and Antarctica—two regions of the world that are sparsely inhabited—there is little chance of them affecting many people.

The only time an aurora can cause significant damage to manmade infrastructure is during a solar storm, which rarely occur. The last time this occurred was during the Carrington Event, a solar storm that occurred in 1859. The storm caused visible auroras across much of the northern hemisphere and also caused telegraph wires to catch fire and explode. Modern power systems and computers can be protected against similar events, with many countries investing money to “harden” their grids against solar activity.

Finally, auroras may pose a risk to airplanes due to the electricity that they emit. However, this has never occurred for a number of reasons. The first is that most airplanes do not fly high enough to enter an aurora. The second is that even airplanes who do ascend to those altitudes do not remain at them for very long, meaning they can enter and exit the aurora zone without suffering any damage. Flights in general are uncommon in the Arctic Circle due to the region’s small population and the elimination of most polar overflight routes between North America and Europe, limiting the potential for an event of this kind.

Conclusion

The Northern Lights are not dangerous to humans at all, and the circumstances where they can cause damage to human infrastructure are so rare that you are unlikely to ever encounter them. If you’re curious about the Northern Lights, it’s never been a better time than now to see them for yourself. Book a tour today and prepare for one of the most memorable experiences of your life.