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What You Need to Know About the Northern Lights

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The Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, is an incredible “dancing colored light show” that occurs about 60 to 70 miles above Earth’s surface. They can extend hundreds of miles into space and are visible at horizontal distances of several hundred miles.

Like the Milky Way, you can see only Northern Lights at night, preferably when the moon isn’t full and the sky is clear (they exist well above the highest clouds). Late autumn and early spring are decent times to witness the Northern Lights, but the real magic is in the dead of Alaska’s winter, when days are short and nights are long and icy snappy cold.

How the Northern Lights work

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Northern Lights are local to the Earth’s polar regions. They are created by accelerating, ionized gas particles from the sun colliding with electrically charged air particles in Earth’s magnetic field. The results are rippling curtains of light reflecting the gases in the atmosphere.

red_northern_lightsColorwise, the most common you’ll see are greenish-yellow or faint blue. Rare colors include blood red. Aurora activity increases with sunspot activity, which generally occurs in 11-year cycles. The most recent maximum activity was in the year 2012, which will last for four to five years.

The best place to see them?

In Alaska, the most reliable spots to see the Northern Lights are in the interior and far north regions, like Fairbanks. It’s not uncommon to mistake the glow of city lights for Northern Lights. Just keep in mind that the real thing starts as greenish bands that move in east-west direction, often evolving into undulating waves.

If you really want optimal viewing, go to the outskirts of town where the interfering ambient light is minimized. Northern Lights are certainly worth waking up in the middle of the night for. They almost redeem the cost of living in a cold, dark winter. Just be sure to dress warm!

Photo credits: walkadog, arnar, brian tomlinson