Travel Tuesday: The Northern Lights

Aurora BorealisOften times, the wonders of the sky are difficult to see. Some constellations are very challenging to spot, without the help of a skilled stargazer with a laser pointer. In an obscure corner of the sky, a distant planet presents itself as a small dot that you can never seem to track down. You hear there’s supposed to be a meteor shower, but you keep missing the shooting stars as they flit across the night sky above.

Unlike all of these challenging and occasionally frustrating stargazing experiences, the Northern Lights are bold and flashy by comparison. You really can’t miss neon undulating lights racing through a large patch of the sky. Full moon? No problem, the lights still shine brightly. A big tree in your way? These lights are no small dot or miniscule blip so you’ll still be able to spot them.

This Tuesday, instead of highlighting a place, we’re shedding light on this incredible celestial phenomenon that can be experienced from several locations. Also called the Aurora borealis in the and the Aurora australis down south, the Northern Lights are featured in today’s 1000 Places to See Before You Die Page-A-Day® calendar, is one of those sights that everyone should see at least once. Besides being an absolutely breathtaking sight to behold, the lights are like a missive from the sun, and a bridge between you and ancient people that have been mystified by the lights for thousands of years.

Neil Young even sings about the lights from the perspective of a Native American in the opening lyric of his song, “Pocahontas:”

“Aurora borealis
The icy sky at night …”

Aboriginals in New Zealand used to suspect that these lights were just reflections from torches or campfires. In North America, the Menominee Indians thought the lights resulted from the ghosts of great hunters and fishermen past, while the Inuit in Alaska figured the lights were the spirits of the animals they’d hunted.


(Photo from Flickr, credit: Moyan Brenn)

So how exactly do these colorful winds form? Basically, gas particles flowing through our atmosphere collide with electrically-charged particles from the sun’s atmosphere. When it’s oxygen molecules in our atmosphere colliding with the sun’s particles, the light forms a light yellow-green. Rarely, this collision takes places at higher altitudes—say around 200 miles from Earth—and forms a striking red color. When Earth’s nitrogen molecules crash into the sun’s particles, blue or purple light forms.

Northern Lights

(Photo from Flickr, credit: Municipality of Tromso)

Plan a winter trip to the northern or southern hemispheres to view the lights, which are strongest at the earth’s magnetic poles. For the best light show, head to northwestern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, or Siberia. It’s more difficult to catch the Aurora australis, as you’ll have to figure out how to get to Antarctica. 

If you think you’re amazed by the Northern Lights, just wait until you see a child’s reaction. Chasing the lights—and stargazing in general—with your kids is a great way to teach them about our universe. Get kids aged 8 and older started with A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky, for stories, myths and stargazing tips.

Read on for more on 1000 Places to See Before You Die book and calendar line from Workman Publishing and Page-A-Day. 


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