The Northern Lights, also known as aurora borealis, is one of the top tourist attractions in the Arctic Circle. Every winter, vacationers flock to far-flung locales such as Alaska and Greenland to watch the night sky light up in a panoply of colors. The expense of traveling to the Arctic and the extreme weather conditions that visitors must endure causes some people to ask the question: is it possible to view the Northern Lights outside of the Arctic Circle?
The answer is yes, but it is far more difficult to do so due to the nature of the Northern Lights itself. Here’s why it’s hard to witness the Northern Lights outside of the Arctic Circle.
Seeing the Northern Lights Outside of the Arctic Circle
The Northern Lights are a phenomenon caused by the Earth’s magnetosphere coming into contact with solar wind, particles that are emitted by the sun. The magnetosphere’s purpose is to protect the Earth from harmful solar radiation, and when solar wind impacts the magnetosphere, the resulting chemical reaction is visible as an aurora.
The magnetic North and South Poles, which are located near the planet’s geographic poles, generate the Earth’s magnetosphere. Charged particles that come into contact with the magnetosphere travel across magnetic field lines, which connect the North and South Poles and bypass other parts of the planet. These magnetic field lines extend out into space and only enter the atmosphere in the Arctic Circle and Antarctica.
Therefore, the reason why auroras are generally not visible in other parts of the world is simple: not enough solar wind can enter the atmosphere in these locations to generate auroras. Solar wind that would otherwise impact these portions of the planet is deflected by the magnetosphere before it can come close to the atmosphere. It is only at the North and South Poles, where the magnetic field lines enter the atmosphere, that auroras generally appear.
Another reason why auroras generally cannot be seen outside of the Arctic Circle is excessive amounts of daylight. During the winter, the Arctic Circle is tilted away from the sun and thus has very little daylight, if any at all. Auroras can only be seen against the night sky because the sun’s light obscures the charged particles responsible for generating auroras in the first place. This is why the best time to view auroras is during the winter, when the amount of daylight in the northern hemisphere is minimized.
Auroras can occasionally be viewed in other parts of the world, but only during periods of excessive solar activity, when the sun is giving off larger-than-normal amounts of solar wind. Auroras have been witnessed in New Orleans and other parts of the globe outside of the Arctic Circle, but they are generally rare.
Overall solar activity has been on the decline since 2008, which astronomers mark as the end of the Modern Maximum, a period of enhanced solar activity that began in 1914. During a solar minimum, sunspot activity decreases and the amount of solar wind that comes into contact with the magnetosphere goes down. Because of this, not only are the chances of seeing the Northern Lights outside of the Arctic Circle greatly reduced, the chances of seeing it within the Arctic Circle are also reduced.
In addition to this, the sun follows mini-cycles where solar activity wanes and waxes. During the minimum portion of this 11-year cycle, solar wind emissions decrease even further. This makes seeing the Northern Lights outside of the Arctic Circle even more unlikely.
The most reliable places to see the Northern Lights outside of the Arctic Circle are regions that are just outside of it. Aurora sightings are common in locales such as northern Scotland, the northernmost portions of Ireland, and Iceland. However, due to increased daylight compared to more northern regions, your best bet is to travel to the Arctic Circle if you can.
Finally, there is one period of time where it is possible to see auroras with regularity outside of the Arctic Circle: during a magnetic reversal. Every 450,000 years or so, the magnetic poles of the Earth reverse polarity, with the North Pole going south and vice versa. During this process, the poles gradually move across the Earth’s surface. Since auroras are concentrated wherever the poles are, this means that it will become possible to see auroras with commonality in other parts of the world. According to scientists, the last magnetic reversal occurred roughly 750,000 years ago, indicating that another one will occur in the next thousands of years.
The Northern Lights are primarily an Arctic phenomenon due to the fact that the North and South Poles are the source of the magnetosphere, whose interaction with the sun is responsible for generating auroras. This means that while it is possible to see auroras in other parts of the world, they are extremely rare occurrences and should not be counted upon. If you want to see the Northern Lights for yourself, your best bet is to check out a tour of the Arctic Circle during the winter to guarantee that you’ll be able to witness them for sure.