What are the Northern Lights? How do the Northern Lights happen and where do the Northern lights come from? All these questions about the aurora borealis answered right here.

What does aurora borealis mean?

The Northern Lights refer to one of the most amazing natural wonders of the world, the aurora borealis. These latin words refer to aurora, latin for sunrise and the name of the Roman Goddess of the dawn, and borealis, the Greek name for the north wind. 

They are called the 'northern lights' because they are a glowing, flickering display of colours most commonly seen in the northern hemisphere.

What colour are the northern lights?

The most common colour to see is fluorescent green, followed by orange and purple, and many shades of red, pink, blue and yellow. These colours are caused by gases in the air, mainly a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen.

When do Northern lights happen?

The northern lights are similar to other weather patterns, in that they can be forecasted and need certain conditions to occur. They can happen anytime you have dark skies, anytime between dawn and dusk, and are least common in the summer months. They can occur all year round, but are best seen between September and April.Northern lights in Iceland

You need clear skies to see them, since the lowest altitude range of the northern lights is about 100km above sea level. Not having any light pollution or a full moon is better for you to see them with your naked eye, since they can often happen without being seen. 

Where do northern lights appear?

They are more commonly called the northern lights because they are mostly visible from the northernmost countries, rarely occurring lower than at a 60°N latitude (and inversely, they are visible below the 60°S parallel too and are called southern lights or aurora australis).

The northern lights can easily be seen from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Northern Russia. During geomagnetic storms, the auroral zone is bigger and brighter, visible in lower altitudes (ie. some Baltic states or British Isles), but the auroral zone is most active from 10° to 20° from the magnetic north pole.

How do northern lights happen?

The scientific explanation behind why they happen is that energetically charged particles collide with atoms in high altitude atmospheres, and this solar wind is directed into the atmosphere by the Earth's magnetic field. 

A geomagnetic storm is a major part of space weather patterns, and is caused by a solar wind shock wave or cloud of magnetic field. It is caused by the temporary disturbance of the magnetosphere by an interplanetary medium.

Northern lights in Iceland

Large magnetic storms are most common during the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle, so the Northern lights also change seasonally. For up to 3 years after that peak, magnetic storms are common.

Read more about the northern lights in Iceland here, or find out how to find the Northern lights in Iceland.