The Northern Lights are recognized as one of the most memorable and important natural attractions of the Arctic. For generations, humans have marveled at the Northern Lights, and thanks to the power of modern technology, tourists can now embark on their own Northern Lights adventure by hopping on a plane or cruise. However, given the nature of both the Northern Lights and the places where they most frequently occur, some may ask the question: is it safe to view the Northern Lights?
The answer is yes. While there are some circumstances where the Northern Lights can be dangerous to humans, these occurrences are rare enough that you are unlikely to ever encounter them. You are more likely to encounter danger not from the Northern Lights itself, but from the climate of the Arctic. Here’s how to stay safe when witnessing the Northern Lights.
Is it Safe to View the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are caused by the Earth’s interaction with the sun. The sun regularly emits solar wind, the scientific term for streams of particles that reverberate outward into the solar system. Solar wind is highly radioactive and deadly to life, but the Earth’s magnetosphere neutralizes or repels solar wind, preventing it from reaching Earth’s surface. The magnetosphere is an invisible barrier that surrounds Earth and is generated by its magnetic field.
Much of the magnetosphere extends into outer space, but because it is generated by the Earth’s magnetic field, the magnetosphere intersects the atmosphere at the North and South Poles, the two locations on Earth where the magnetic field originates. When solar wind impacts the magnetosphere in these locations, interactions with atmospheric particles is visible in the form of auroras.
All matter is composed of atoms, and atoms themselves are composed of three types of particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons carry a positive electrical charge, while neutrons carry no charge; both are located in the nucleus, the center of the atom. Electrons carry a negative electrical charge and orbit the nucleus in a fashion similar to how the Earth itself orbits the sun.
When charged particles in the form of solar wind impact air atoms, they become excited, meaning that electrons move to higher-energy orbits that are further away from the nucleus. When the atom ceases to be excited, its electrons return to their original orbits, emitting a photon—a unit of light—in the process. When countless atoms in the atmosphere become excited all at once, this creates the phenomenon known as the Northern Lights. This process is identical to how neon signs work; electricity is used to excite neon gas within a tube, causing the neon to produce light.
Despite the fact that the Northern Lights may sound dangerous, they aren’t. Solar wind is dissipated at such a high altitude in the atmosphere that it poses no threat to any humans on the ground below. Humans have observed the Northern Lights for millennia without experiencing any adverse effects, to the point where numerous myths and legends sprung up around them prior to the advent of modern science.
Auroras occasionally pose a threat to human infrastructure and electronics due to the sheer amount of electricity they release, but these events are rare and can only be triggered by solar storms. The last known solar storm of this size was the Carrington Event of 1859, which caused auroras to be visible across much of the northern hemisphere and also damaged telegraph lines, causing them to spark or explode into flames. A powerful solar storm potentially poses a danger to computers and other electronics, but it is possible to “harden” human infrastructure against solar activity, with many countries investing billions of dollars into protecting their electrical grids from interstellar interference.
Auroras may also pose a threat to aircraft flying near or through them, but this is also rare because few if any airplanes fly at the height necessary to intersect with an aurora, and the ones that do fly at that height do not remain at it for very long. This makes damage to the plane unlikely since the aircraft will descend before taking any damage. Flights of this type are rare in the Arctic Circle due to the sparse population and the abandonment of many polar overflight routes following the end of the Cold War.
The greatest dangers you are likely to encounter when observing the Northern Lights are related to the extreme climate of the Arctic. Given that auroras must be viewed during the winter, you will be exposed to extremely cold temperatures during your trip. Arctic weather is also highly unpredictable and can turn on a dime.
To keep yourself safe when viewing auroras, wear thick, multi-layered clothing so you can stay warm. This includes coats, gloves, hats, scarves, and whatever else you need to keep the cold out. Given that many aurora viewing locations are in rural or isolated areas, you will also want to pack good-quality shoes or boots so you can walk in the snow. You’ll also want to drink hot beverages such as coffee or hot cocoa, though depending on which tour operator you choose, your hosts may provide these for you.
The Northern Lights themselves are perfectly safe for humans to view, as people have been observing and recording them for thousands of years. The dangers that auroras occasionally pose are extremely rare and you are unlikely to ever encounter them. The most important thing you need to be aware of when viewing auroras is the surrounding weather. To ensure your aurora trip is as comfortable as possible, dress appropriately and prepare yourself for extremely low temperatures and snow. If you make these preparations, your Northern Lights trip will be one of the most exciting moments of your life.