The Northern Lights is one of the most spectacular natural sights on Earth and one of the attractions that the Arctic is best-known for. Every year, tourists from around the world flock to Alaska, Norway, and other northern locales to see the night sky light up in a menagerie of brilliant colors. Given the time and expense required to see the Northern Lights, you may be wondering if you need any special equipment in order to truly experience them.
The answer is yes and no. While the Northern Lights can be seen with the naked eye, the extreme climate of the Arctic means you will need to take special precautions in order to stay safe. Read on to learn what you need to see the Northern Lights.
What Do I Need to See the Northern Lights?
As mentioned above, the Northern Lights are largely visible without special equipment. Due to atmosphere penetration, most auroras manifest as ribbons of blue or green light, which can easily be seen from the Earth’s surface. If you journey to the Arctic during the winter, you are all-but guaranteed to see blue or green auroras.
Red auroras are less common but sometimes visible as a result of solar interaction with air particles in the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. Because of the sheer distance at which red auroras appear as well as the type of light that they are composed of, they are generally not visible with the naked eye and require special monitoring equipment. Infrared and ultraviolet auroras also occur with some regularity but cannot be observed without special equipment due to the fact that both types of light are not visible to the human eye.
On a more practical level, in order to view the Northern Lights safely and comfortably, you will need to take care of yourself. While temperature has nothing to do with auroras—they can manifest even when it is warm out—it is all-but certain that you will be viewing auroras during the winter due to the requirement that the sky be dark.
Auroras cannot occur during the day, because the powerful rays of the sun blot out any aurora formations that might otherwise be seen. Auroras can only happen when the sky is clear and dark. Because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis, the Arctic experiences wildly shifting day lengths throughout the year. Summers in the Arctic have extremely long days with little darkness, while winters are the reverse, with long nights and little daylight. As such, auroras are most commonly seen during the winter, when daylight exposure is minimal.
Further compounding this is the fact that even in winter, much of the Arctic still receives some daylight. Contrary to popular belief, the only part of the Arctic that is completely dark during the winter is the North Pole itself, and even then, the North Pole is only dark for a short period around the winter solstice in December. Other parts of the Arctic will receive anywhere from two to four others of daylight per day, and as mentioned already, daylight makes it impossible for auroras to be seen.
Keeping all of this in mind, the best time to see auroras is between the hours of 9:30 pm and 1am. This is when the night sky is darkest and the sun is furthest from rising or setting. While auroras can sometimes be witnessed at other times—as early as 4pm and as late as 6am—this specific window is when auroras are most easily visible.
This means that you will be traveling out to see auroras during the coldest part of the day in the coldest time of the year. To prepare for this, you will need warm, multi-layered clothing that will protect you from the elements. You will also want good shoes that can keep your feet dry, given the presence of snow in many Arctic locales during the winter. Since most aurora viewing locations are in rural areas due to light pollution in cities making auroras less visible, you will need to account for this as part of your viewing experience.
When it comes to photography, keep in mind that many smartphone models have difficulty working in extremely cold temperatures, and most remote viewing locations will not have phone or Internet service. Keep this in mind if you are planning to take pictures while on vacation. Indeed, many professional photographers often require special equipment when they journey to the Arctic.
Taking a trip to the Arctic to witness the Northern Lights is not a dangerous experience, but it’s one that you need to prepare for. Understand the risks and necessities of aurora viewing and you can ensure that your trip north to see the Northern Lights will be one of the most memorable experiences of your life.