The Northern Lights are known as one of the most important natural wonders of the Arctic. This spectacular natural light display has captivated humans for generations, and thanks to the wonder of modern technology, people from across the globe can now easily visit the Arctic and see auroras for themselves. Given the expense and time investment involved in traveling to the far north, you might be wondering if weather has any effect on the Northern Lights.
The answer is yes and no. While Earth’s weather does not affect the formation of the Northern Lights, excessive cloud cover and other inclement weather effects can prevent you from being able to see them. Read on to learn how weather affects the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights and Weather
The Northern Lights are an event caused by the Earth’s interaction with the sun. When solar wind (streams of particles emitted by the sun) come into contact with Earth’s magnetosphere, they are neutralized or deflected before they can impact the planet’s surface. Most of the magnetosphere is located in outer space, but because the planet’s magnetic field is generated from the North and South Poles, the magnetosphere intersects with the atmosphere in those locations. When solar wind enters the atmosphere at those points, the resulting chemical interaction is visible from the ground as the Northern Lights.
Because auroras are created by solar wind, weather and atmospheric conditions do not affect them. However, bad weather can prevent auroras from being seen. Auroras form in the upper atmosphere due to the nature of the magnetosphere, meaning they require clear skies in order to be seen. Clouds are relatively low in elevation due to the heaviness of water particles and the thinness of the upper atmosphere, which means that sufficient cloud cover can completely block your view of an aurora from the ground.
Weather is an important consideration for aurora travelers because many places that would otherwise make ideal aurora viewing locations are disqualified due to cloud cover in the winter months. For example, while much of eastern Canada intersects the Arctic Circle, heavy cloud cover in the provinces of Newfoundland and Quebec and the territory of Nunavut makes them poor places to go aurora chasing. Conversely, western Canada and Alaska are known for clearer winter weather, making them ideal viewing locations for travelers.
Additionally, weather can change on a month to month basis in some places, making them good aurora viewing locations at some times but not others. Tromsø, Norway is a popular aurora tourism spot, but it is a bad choice in the month of December due to excessive cloud cover during that time. Before choosing an aurora viewing destination, you should look up historical weather data for that area so you can be assured of having enough clear nights for aurora viewing.
Contrary to popular belief, auroras are not affected by temperature. Many believe that it must be cold out for auroras to form, but it is perfectly possible for auroras to appear during warm weather. The reason why most auroras are seen during cold periods is because the best time to see auroras is in the winter due to excessive darkness in the Arctic. The Earth’s axial tilt results in the Arctic having near-constant daylight during the summer months, and since auroras cannot be seen during the day, winter is the ideal time to view one.
Weather conditions also have an influence on what equipment or preparations you will need to make to see an aurora. For example, if you are traveling to a location known for frequent snowfall, you will want to pack snow boots so you can walk around. To cope with the cold, you will want a heavy coat as well as a hat, gloves, and a scarf. You may also need some survival gear such as flashlights, though if you are seeing auroras with the aid of a tour operator, they will do their best to ensure you are safe during your trip.
When it comes to photographing auroras, keep in mind that many smartphones and other mobile devices will not function properly in excessively cold weather. You will also almost be certainly traveling to remote locations with no WiFi or mobile Internet. Keep this in mind when you pack for your trip.
Despite what some may think, the weather has no effect on the formation of the Northern Lights. However, bad weather and cloud cover may prevent you from seeing auroras in the atmosphere. To mitigate this, select an aurora viewing location known for clear skies in the winter, and be sure to pack appropriately to cope with low temperatures and snowfall. By preparing adequately, you’ll be able to enjoy your aurora vacation in safety and comfort, making it one of the most memorable experiences of your life.