Aurora borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, is nature’s spectacular but elusive light show caused by charged particles from the sun reacting with atoms in the earth’s atmosphere. Travelers still have time to plan a winter trip for the best chance of spotting this hard-to-predict natural phenomenon.
When: The lights can be seen throughout winter but reach their peak near the first day of fall and first day of spring – March 20 in 2012. The best visibility is around midnight on dark, clear nights, so check the weather forecast and plan for dates when the moon will be early in its cycle.
Where: The lights circle the globe in a band about 20 degrees from the magnetic north pole, which moves each year (in contrast to the geographic north pole). The latitudinal extent of the lights varies depending on solar activity and other conditions, but typically they can be seen in the northern contiguous United States and Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Other tips: Websites such as the Geophysical Institute predict aurora visibility. Guided tours are offered in most Northern Lights destinations, and some hotels will call you when the lights appear.