The Northern Lights are known as one of the most significant natural attractions of the Arctic. Observed by humans for generations, their beauty and wonder has inspired countless myths and folk beliefs, and with the advent of modern technology, tourists from around the world can now flock to the Arctic to see an aurora themselves. This begs the question: how does one stay safe when viewing the Northern Lights?
Contrary to what some have claimed, the Northern Lights are perfectly safe to view. While there are rare circumstances where auroras can be harmful to humans, these are so uncommon that the likelihood you will ever encounter them is slim. Any danger you might experience while seeing the Northern Lights will not come from the aurora itself, but from the extreme climate of the Arctic Circle. Here is how you can keep yourself safe when viewing the Northern Lights.
Staying Safe When Viewing the Northern Lights
Understanding why the Northern Lights are safe requires you to know how they work. Auroras are a natural phenomenon that is created by the sun’s interaction with the Earth. The sun frequently gives off solar wind, a scientific term for various particles that are projected outward into the solar system and deep space. Solar wind contains radioactivity and is harmful to human life, but Earth is protected from solar radiation by the magnetosphere, an invisible barrier that surrounds the planet and deflects or neutralizes solar wind.
The vast bulk of the magnetosphere is located in the empty space surrounding Earth, but because it is created by the planet’s magnetic field, the magnetosphere enters the atmosphere at the North and South Poles, the source of Earth’s magnetic field. When solar wind enters the magnetosphere in those areas, it interacts with particles in the atmosphere; the resulting chemical interaction is visible as the Northern Lights.
All matter in the universe is made up of atoms. Atoms themselves are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons carry a positive charge and neutrons carry no charge; they are located in the nucleus, the main part of the atom. Electrons carry a negative charge and circle the nucleus in orbits, similar to how the moon revolves around the Earth.
When charged particles within solar wind enter the atmosphere, the air atoms they come into contact with become excited, a process where electrons within those atoms migrate to higher-energy orbits that are further away from the atom’s nucleus. When the excitement process ends, the electrons migrate back to their original orbits, creating a unit of light in the process known as a photon. When countless photons are created due to mass excitement of atoms, the result is a large amount of light, creating an aurora. Neon signs function in a similar fashion; they use electricity to excite atoms of neon gas, which causes the neon to create light.
Given that auroras are created through solar radiation and electricity, this might make them sound dangerous, but they aren’t. Solar wind cannot reach the Earth’s surface at any point due to the magnetosphere, and even in the polar regions where auroras occur, this process happens at such a high elevation that there is no harm possible to any humans who may be watching from the surface. People have been observing and noting the Northern Lights since before the dawn of recorded history without any kind of adverse effect.
Auroras may occasionally be harmful to human electronics due to the electricity they produce, but this is rare; in order for an aurora to cause damage to human infrastructure, it must be triggered by a solar storm. The last known solar storm that caused harm to human infrastructure was the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859. This storm caused auroras to appear across much of the northern hemisphere and damaged telegraph lines by making them spark or explode. In theory, solar storms could impact computers, Internet infrastructure, and other delicate electronics, but it is possible to protect power grids and the like from solar activity through a “hardening” process. A number of nations, such as Canada, have already hardened their electrical grids to defend against solar wind.
The Northern Lights may also be harmful to aircraft that fly near them, but this does not happen often due to the sheer height at which auroras occur. Very few airplanes fly high enough to come into contact with an aurora, and on the rare occasion that a plane does ascend that high, it will only remain there for a short period. Because planes that enter the aurora zone descend to lower altitudes not long after, there is little chance for the plane to take damage. Additionally, it is rare for flights of this type to occur in the Arctic Circle to begin with due to the small population and the end of most polar overflight routes between the U.S. and Europe after the Cold War ended.
The only likely danger you are likely to be confronted with when searching at auroras is not related to the auroras themselves, but due to the cold and unforgiving climate of the regions where they occur. Auroras can generally only be viewed during the winter due to summer having too much sunlight, meaning that anyone who goes on an aurora tourism vacation will have to contend with frigid temperatures and snow. Additionally, weather in many parts of the Arctic is unpredictable and can change without warning.
To ensure your safety when viewing the Northern Lights, wear a thick coat and multi-layered clothing to keep yourself from getting cold. Bring a hat, a pair of gloves, a scarf, and whatever else can help you stay warm. Many prime aurora sighting locations are in rural areas, so you should also bring high-quality snow boots so you can walk around and keep your feet from getting wet. Another good way to stay warm in the Arctic is to drink hot beverages such as coffee or hot cocoa, though depending on what type of tour you take, your hosts may offer these to you.
Despite what it might sound like, the Northern Lights are 100 percent safe for humans to watch, as shown by how people have been observing them for eons. The occasional dangers that auroras pose are sufficiently uncommon that you are unlikely to ever experience them. The only real dangers you need to worry about are related to the climate of the Arctic. To ensure that you avoid getting sick, suffering from frostbite, or other winter-related ailments, bring good, thick clothing and shoes so you can snuggle in and keep the cold out. By dressing for the occasion, you’ll ensure that your Northern Lights adventure will be one of the best trips you ever take in your life.