At the highest and lowest latitudes on the planet, sun, atmosphere and magnetism collide to paint the sky in curtains of light. Up north, it's the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. Down south, it's the aurora australis, or Southern Lights -- near-mirrors, though one is seldom seen.
Auroras themselves are not rare: About 60 to 200 miles (100 to 300 kilometers) above Earth, collisions are lighting up in neon green, occasionally red or pink, rarely purple [source: Tate]. Seeing them from the ground, though, requires certain conditions, namely darkness, clear skies, a particularly active sun and finding oneself in one of the auroral zones.
The two "auroral zones" on Earth appear as ovals over the north and south (magnetic) poles, respectively. Sightings outside these ovals are practically unheard of, and even within them aren't guaranteed. Still, some locations, at some times, are pretty sure bets.
Here, 10 spots with some of the best auroral views in the world. Alaska no doubt comes to mind, so we'll start there, all the way out in Denali.
While Fairbanks is good, Denali is arguably better.
Alaska in general, from its Arctic vantage point, offers exceptional views of the aurora borealis. It's well within the Northern Lights zone, and its winters offer nearly constant darkness morning to night. Fall, too, offers excellent views [source: Mother Nature Network]. If you're lucky, you can see the lights even outside the prime viewing seasons.
Denali National Park, a bit south of the Arctic Circle and just a few hours from Fairbanks, offers millions of pristine acres where city lights won't compete with the ones in the sky [source: Explore Fairbanks]. There's lodging there, too, so even the less-outdoorsy types can venture comfortably into the Alaskan wilderness to catch the show.
Next, a bit eastward ...
If you head east from Denali, all the way through the Yukon (another good aurora-viewing region, by the way), you'll find yourself in Canada's Northwest Territories (NWT). You'd have a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis at any point on this journey. But if you go straight to Yellowknife, just south of the Arctic Circle, you may increase your chances a bit.
The town of Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories offers exceptional viewing for several reasons. There are the typical ones -- location in the auroral zone, extended darkness for most of the year -- but Yellowknife is also far enough from the nearest mountains to offer not only less-obstructed views but also a more stable climate, with skies that tend to be clearer than in other areas of the NWT [source: Aurora Village].
Next, to Scandinavia.
Norway is a popular destination for aurora seekers, with Tromsø often at the top of the list. The city is in the Northern Lights zone, and it's located north of the Arctic Circle, making it closer to the northern pole [source: Fjord Travel].
While aurora viewings are never guaranteed, in Tromsø they're pretty close: About half of the city's dark, clear nights boast excellent light shows [source: Hansen]. And, covered in darkness for about nine months out of the year, the aurora can often be seen in the afternoons there, too [source: Fjord Travel].
Hotels in Tromsø will often offer Aurora Borealis wake-up calls, just in case you fall asleep before the lights show up.
Now, to Russia.
Russian winters are not, perhaps, the ideal vacation climate, but if you're in town for the aurora, you might just brave it happily.
The city of Murmansk, at the northern tip of Russia's Kola Peninsula, sits north of the Arctic Circle [source: BuroMoscow]. At this latitude, days are nearly always dark, and auroras are relatively common sights. In prime viewing months, in fact -- February, March, September and October -- if the sky is clear, the lights can almost be counted on, and they may last for days at a time [source: Gonzalez].
Now, before we leave the borealis zone, a stop in Greenland ...
Like the other four northern destinations, the town of Kangerlussuaq is beneath the auroral oval; and like Tromsø and Murmansk, it's north of the Arctic Circle. What makes Kangerlussuaq an exceptional viewing location is its annual 300 days (and nights) of clear skies [source: WOGAC], give or take, and its stunning lack of light pollution. The chances of seeing at least one spectacular Northern Lights display during a stay here are pretty high.
The area is quite undeveloped. Getting around means traveling by dog sleds and snowmobiles, and lodging is limited -- a hotel, a couple of cabins, rented rooms in village homes [source: Mother Nature Network]. For some, this may exclude Kangerlussuaq from the borealis tour; for others, it will make it the first stop.
The Northern Lights, while rare by a global perspective, are positively common compared to their southern counterparts. To have a decent shot at seeing the aurora australis, one must go to greater extremes ...
At the southern pole of the planet, another light show is going on. The aurora australis, or Southern Lights, are a near-mirror to the northern ones. And if you're able to snag a spot at one of the research facilities in Antarctica, you'll experience it.
The South Pole, being the South Pole, has a prime location in the Auroral Zone. It sits farther south of the Antarctic Circle than any other spot on the map (naturally), and the Southern Lights are a regular occurrence here. On the downside, the continent is inhospitable, to say the least. Tours and cruises do go there during the more manageable times of year, but winter is the best time to see the lights [source: IAATO]. Still, the Antarctic tourist season offers the best chance out there for seeing the aurora australis.
However, there are more-hospitable locations where visitors might catch a glimpse -- if the sun is in a particularly active state -- places like Southernmost Australia.
While Antarctica itself is the only land mass south of the Antarctic Circle, there are several areas north of it where the Southern Lights have been known to grace the skies on a lucky night [source: University of Texas]. One of them is the island of Tasmania.
Located off the southern coast of Australia, Tasmania is one of the closer landmasses to the Antarctic Circle. While it's far from probable, the island does offer visitors the possibility of spotting the aurora australis -- a 1 to 2 percent chance on a clear night [source: AAD].
It takes luck. But Tasmania is a true tourist destination, so at least here, there's plenty more to do should the australis prove elusive.
Next, a quick hop to New Zealand.
New Zealand's Southland is one of the locations supplying radar data to a global network that tracks auroral activity. (Tasmania is another one.) Stewart Island is part of Southland.
Stewart Island is also known as Rakiura, a Maori word meaning "glowing skies" -- a good omen, perhaps, or maybe just wishful thinking [source: Teara]. While the island is one of the best places outside Antarctica to see the aurora australis, chances are still rather slim, especially considering the area's reputation for rain [source: Stewart Island].
Still, a dark, clear night and excellent timing can do the trick.
Next, to South Georgia Island ...
Home to King Edward Point Research Station, South Georgia Island is another ideal location for researching atmospheric and astronomic activity -- in this case, magnetic storms and their effects, one of which is the intensity of auroras [source: Turbitt].
South Georgia is a possible auroral viewing spot, but the icy island is used almost exclusively as a research base. It's tough to get there -- boat and boat-based aircraft are the only options [source: BAS]. Most tourists who visit there (and perhaps glimpse the aurora in its skies) do so by cruise ship.
Finally, to the very, very south of South America.
It's said to be the southernmost city on the globe, located at the southern tip of Argentina [source: Aurora]. Ushuaia is closer to the Antarctic Circle than Tasmania, South Georgia and Stewart Island. It would seem a likely spot to see the lights.
And it is -- but when it comes to the aurora australis, "likely" means "possible." Still, the Southern Lights do appear over Ushuaia, and it's remarkably easier to get there, stay there and tour there than, say, South Georgia Island. Or the South Pole.
In winter time, Ushuaia is in darkness for about 17 hours a day, which leaves the door open for sightings -- if the timing and the weather are right [source: Patagonia]. The weather here, however, is rather unstable, throwing another factor into the luck pile [source: Patagonia].
Maybe that's what it's about, though -- adventure, luck and the surprise of a sky suddenly exploding with ribbons of neon light. The aurora australis can be tough to catch, and even great efforts may fail. For some aurora seekers, that's part of the allure.
For the rest, and for those who try valiantly and still miss the show, the Aurora Borealis is waiting up North -- easier to get to, more likely to appear when people are watching and a practical mirror to the lights of the south. The only difference, in the end, is latitude.
For more information on the auroras, the polar regions and atmospheric phenomena, check out the links on the next page.
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Author's Note: 10 Best Spots on Earth to Watch the Auroras
Is it strange that I dedicated half an article about where to see the auroras to places where it's unlikely to happen? Perhaps. But I discovered early on in my research that many people don't know there are Southern Lights. The commonly photographed aurora borealis, and the popularity of Alaska as a tourist destination, seems to have embedded the aurora as a Northern phenomenon to such a great extent that its Southern counterpart has slipped through the general-knowledge cracks. And so, my tiny attempt to change that. And maybe help out an adventurer knocking off a bucket list way too quickly for comfort.
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- "About the Aurora Borealis: Why does the Aurora appear so frequently over Yellowknife?" Aurora Village. (Nov. 7, 2012) http://www.auroravillage.com/aurora_facts.html
- Akinmade, Lola. "Top 10 Places to See the Northern Lights." Fodor's. (Nov. 7, 2012) http://www.fodors.com/travel-photography/top-10-places-to-see-the-northern-lights-218.html
- "Antarctic Region." Polar Regions and Oceans Maps. University of Texas Libraries. 2009. (Nov. 14, 2012) http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/islands_oceans_poles/antarctic_region_pol_2009.pdf
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- Gonzalez, Daria. "Catching up with northern lights in Russia's Arctic Circle." Russia & India Report. Sept. 15, 2012. (Nov. 7, 2012) http://indrus.in/articles/2012/09/15/catching_up_with_northern_lights_in_russias_arctic_circle_17661.html
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- "Kangerlussuaq." Fifty Degrees North (FDN). (Nov. 7, 2012) http://www.fiftydegreesnorth.com/places/Kangerlussuaq
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- "Story: Stewart Island/Rakiura." Teara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. (Nov. 9, 2012) http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/stewart-islandrakiura/1/1
- Tate, Jean. "Aurora Australis." Universe Today. Oct. 14, 2009. (Nov. 7, 2012) http://www.universetoday.com/42623/aurora-australis/
- "Unwin Radar." Southland. (Nov. 9, 2012) http://www.southlandnz.com/Business-in-Southland/Regional-Projects/Space-and-Radio-Science/Unwin-Radar
- "Ushuaia." Patagonia-Argentina. (Nov. 9, 2012) http://www.patagonia-argentina.com/en/ushuaia
- Wong, Hiufu. "5 places to see the brightest Aurora displays." CNN Go. March 13, 2012. (Nov. 7, 2012) http://www.cnngo.com/explorations/escape/5-places-see-brightest-northern-lights-696679