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What to Expect: Observing the Aurora Borealis

Witnessing the aurora borealis, a glorious natural phenomenon that ignites the sky with shimmering incandescent light, ranks high on many a traveler’s bucket list.

Growing up in rural Alaska, Assistant Expedition Leader Adrienne Bosworth was privileged to experience the northern lights countless times.

“I knew when the phone rang hours after my bedtime that the local aurora phone tree was in motion,” she recalls. “My parents would wake up my brother and I, stuff us into snow suits, and we would trundle together into the night. I usually had premium views perched on someone’s shoulders or the cold metal cab of a truck.”

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Working for Lindblad Expeditions and seeing the aurora from the ship in faraway waters reminds Bosworth how lucky she was to have had the lights as childhood companions. Over the years, Bosworth has developed a deep well of knowledge about the subject. “Watching the aurora borealis is nothing like watching fireworks, it is so much bigger,” she says. “It feels like a window into the cosmos, like something more alive than stars. It makes me feel tiny, unimportant, and because of that quite happy.”

Read on as Bosworth prepares you for your own magnificent encounter with this technicolor marvel.

Arctic Aurora E Guth.jpg
Photo: Eric Guth

What is the aurora borealis? 

Aurora borealis is the phenomenon in which colorful blazes of incandescent light play across the northern sky. When nights are dark and clear, researchers, tourists, and laborers from Alaska to Finland, Nunavut to Siberia, may look up from their routines to see ghostly streamers flickering among the stars.

Perhaps slightly less well-documented than our northern lights—aurora borealis—is their twin, aurora australis. This spectacle is the corollary lightshow in the far south. True mirrors, there is very little difference between the two occurrences, except their home territory. 

Where can people observe this phenomenon?

Aurora borealis is a phenomenon born of the high northern latitudes, common in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Unlike a squall or a downpour that might affect only a discrete area, aurora occurrences are wide ranging—they can often be seen simultaneously from mountains and sea, cities and remote beaches. Although light pollution from large settlements can impede the clearest views, the best show I have ever seen was from a taxi in downtown Reykjavik in Iceland. My driver barely glanced up as naturally neon lights blazed above the port. Being on a ship at sea, however, is the ideal place to see the aurora, with few lights and massive swathes of horizon adding to the scale and intensity.  

What causes the aurora borealis?

Explanations of the aurora are as dauntingly technical as the light shows are fantastical. Terms like “solar wind” and “geomagnetic storm” evoke science fiction plots of interdimensional travel and revised laws of physics. In the simplest terms, the aurora is a reaction between the atmospheres of the sun and Earth. The searing heat of the sun flings charged particles out of its orbit with a force that carries them towards the Earth. Our planet’s magnetic field coalesces around the poles, and when rogue solar particles come into contact with the field they are channeled to the far north and far south. In polar regions, these clouds of solar detritus collide with the gas of our upper atmosphere, and those collisions paint the sky.

The name aurora borealis is a poetic fusion of two mythical references, coined by 17th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei: Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn, and Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind.
Adrienne Bosworth

How often does aurora borealis occur? Is there a best time to see it?

Unpredictability ensures that these spectacles remain so poignant, and any venture to see the aurora is a gamble. Two essential conditions, however, are darkness and high latitude; the most luminous shows require both. In addition, while much is still unknown about “solar weather”—the swirling particles that flow outward from the sun to create the aurora—there is evidence that some years are brighter than others. Solar weather cycles last about eleven years and include periods of semi-dormancy and heightened activity. 

Aurora Greenland M Nolan.jpg
Photo: Michael S. Nolan

What does the name ‘aurora borealis’ mean? Where does it come from?

Scientists are all secretly romantics, and this terminology reminds us of that. “Aurora borealis” is a poetic fusion of two mythical references, coined by 17th century astronomer Galileo Galilei: Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn, and Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind. These two figures appropriately signify the hybrid of sublime beauty and raw power.

What causes the colors that people see? Do these colors change? 

The colors of the aurora, while variable, do not span the rainbow. The vast majority of occurrences are bright green—like an unripe banana or spearmint gum; rarer shows are red, purple, or blue. This limited palette is because the colors we see are reactions between solar particles and the composition of the earth’s atmosphere. The concentration of oxygen and nitrogen present at different levels in the atmosphere determines the reaction and thus the color.

Aurora over the forest.jpg

What are the forms or shapes that make up aurora borealis?

As with most things, experts have meticulously mapped the topography of the aurora, categorizing it into layers and ribbons, coronas and streaks. For most onlookers, however, distinct forms are murky; the lights simply blend into a cacophony of color and night. The most useful metaphor for me is curtains: a common configuration for the aurora is rippling, folding, vertical sheets that fade away at their upper extremity but come to a distinct edge at the bottom. This edge is created because at a certain low level in the atmosphere the oxygen levels shift dramatically, and the reactions that cause the aurora cease. Thus, we see a sheet that appears to flutter in the solar wind.  


Does it appear different from night to night?

Although larger solar weather cycles can be provisionally tracked by astronomers, the nightly patterns and probability of aurora occurrences are fairly… up in the air. The lights can come out for a few hours or a few days, you simply have to be ready when they are.


Are there other auroras in the solar system?

Some of the most mind-bending documentation of the aurora has been gathered from outer space, looking back at a marble-earth shrouded in light. But auroras are not limited to earth. Nearly all of the planets in our solar system have some variety of spectral glow, although the recipes of particles and magnetic fields that create them differ. The most dramatic spectacle in the neighborhood is Jupiter, whose aurora never stop. With a potent magnetic field and constant barrage of particles from many sources including its own moon, this gas giant is constantly awash. 

Iceland Aurora Spiral.jpg

Are there any sounds associated with the aurora borealis?

I have never heard them, but the haunting whispers and crackles of the aurora have been documented for several hundred years. Recent research suggests that these sounds are not (as previously thought) auditory illusions or the hallucinations of malnourished explorers, but rather the sound of electromagnetic energy discharging as solar winds ripple into the lower levels of the atmosphere.  


How did earlier cultures explain this phenomenon?

There is an age-old interplay between aurora borealis and human culture or mythos. The magnitude of these light shows lends itself to the supernatural, shakes the scale and logic of daily life. In China some people believed aurora occurrences were due to a battle taking place in the heavens; early Europeans proclaimed them as bad omens; indigenous people of Australia thought that gods were dancing. Perhaps the most cinematic of ancient explanations comes from the Norse, who thought the lights a divine bridge that connected Midgard (Earth) with the home of the gods, Asgard.

Does climate change have any effect on aurora borealis?

As far as we know, the aurora borealis itself is not affected by climate change. Viewing it could be impacted, as larger storms create more clouds globally and block our eyes from perceiving the spectacle, but the aurora would be occurring nonetheless. 

Viewing the aurora aboard ship Nolan.jpg
Photo: Michael S. Nolan

Is there anything travelers should do to prepare for seeing the aurora borealis?

In order to prepare for seeing the aurora borealis you should first temper your expectations; no amount of local knowledge, money, or enthusiasm can cause the lights to appear. That said, if the aurora borealis is a priority on your expedition, be sure your cabin speakers are turned on and up when you go to sleep. A great advantage of being on a ship during polar nights is that there are so many people awake tending to the ship and watching the horizon. If lights come out at night, the bridge team will notify the expedition leader, who will roll out of bed and make a ship-wide announcement. 

Is it possible to take photographs of aurora borealis? Do they come out well?

Photographs of the aurora are ubiquitous in travel media from the far north, but don’t always give an accurate sense of what viewing the aurora is like. Cameras that can slow their shutter speeds allow for more light to appear on an image than the human eye can see, turning what might seem like a bright cloud at night into a brilliant coruscating wave. For that reason, it can be tricky yet extremely satisfying to photograph the aurora with the right tools; your camera can show you a dimension of the experience that you wouldn’t apprehend otherwise. For those with DSLR cameras, adjusting shutter speed is simple and your Certified Photo Instructor will explain techniques. Even smartphone photographers can join in, though it might help to download an application for nighttime photography before you embark.