The Northern Lights - Nature's Lava Lamp

The Northern Lights - Nature's Lava Lamp photo

The Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are one of nature's great displays — a mysterious, multicolored show in which the night sky is suddenly lit up with a wondrous glow that twists and swirls like a heavenly lava lamp. Elusive and ethereal, it's one of the great, timeless thrills of travel, a beautiful, shifting dance of nocturnal rainbows that many viewers find a humbling and spiritually uplifting experience.

The Northern Lights exist in the outmost layer of the atmosphere. They're created by electrically charged particles that make the thin air shine, not unlike a fluorescent light. They can be seen in auroral belts that form 20-25 degrees around the geomagnetic poles, both in the north and the south.

This year the sun's storms will reach the peak of their 11-year cycle, known as the "Solar Maximum," offering viewers plentiful and spectacular aurora displays. If you've wanted to see the Northern Lights, this is the time.

Solar flares, ejecting charges of atoms and electrons into space reaching Earth a day or two later, increase Northern Lights activity. The Earth's magnetic field draws these fast-moving electrically charged particles to the poles where they collide with different gases in the upper atmosphere to produce different colors.

The Northern Lights appear within an area known as the auroral oval which hovers above the Arctic and sub-Arctic. The most easily accessible of locations to view them are Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Canada. The three best places to see the Northern Lights include the Aurora Sky Station at Abisko in Swedish Lapland, the Hotel Ranga in Iceland's southern countryside, and just outside Tromso in northern Norway, all from late September to early April, with October to November and February to March considered optimum periods. While you can see them at any moment, the best time to see the Northern Lights is from 9 P.M. to 2 A.M.

Where you go will depend on your budget and the time you have available, but a more crucial decision is what else you want to do when you're not standing outside in sub-zero temperatures staring up at the night sky with fingers crossed, for Northern Lights viewing is much like playing the lottery.

Don't become obsessed with viewing the aurora, but see it as just one of many activities of a Arctic winter holiday. Sparkling white landscapes, fairy-tale ice hotels, and romantic husky-sled rides are reasons enough to go. With luck, you'll also see the heavens ablaze with a silky, swirling light.

However, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances. Pick dates that avoid a full moon and visit locations away from the lights of large towns and cities. Local weather conditions can vary wildly, with sensational sightings at one spot and thick cloud cover just a few miles away. So go for as many nights as you can spare and visit more than one place.