Where Are the Northern Lights and Southern Lights?

By: Julia Layton  | 
A glowing red aurora borealis appears in Denali, Alaska, close to Earth's geomagnetic north pole.
Tom Walker/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

At the highest and lowest latitudes on the planet, sun, atmosphere and magnetism collide to paint the sky in curtains of light known as Northern Lights and Southern Lights.

Of the two, the Northern Lights are easier to see because the locations are easier to access, but where are the Northern Lights and Southern Lights? And what are the best conditions for watching green lights dance across a dark sky?


What Are Auroras?

Auroras, also known as the Northern and Southern Lights (aurora borealis and aurora australis, respectively), are natural light displays in Earth's polar regions. They occur when charged particles from the sun — sometimes called solar wind — collide with gases in the Earth's atmosphere, producing colorful, dancing lights. These stunning displays are visible near the magnetic poles, creating a mesmerizing spectacle in the night sky.

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 (meaning no city lights or light pollution), 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.

10 Best Places to See the Northern and Southern Lights

The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, are in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, you have the aurora australis, or Southern Lights. Here, learn about the 10 spots with some of the best auroral views in the world.

10. Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali National Park falls well within the Northern Lights zone.
Tom Walker/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Alaska in general, from its Arctic vantage point, is an exceptional spot for a Northern Lights viewing. It's well within the Northern Lights zone, and its winters offer nearly constant darkness from 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.

9. Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

Yellowknife's clear skies make your chances of seeing the aurora borealis all the more likely.
Ryerson Clark/E+/Getty Images

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). Much of this land falls under the auroral oval, so 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. (It's nicknamed the Aurora Capital of North America for a reason."

The town of Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories offers you a chance to see the Northern Lights swirl. There are the typical ones — location in the auroral zone and 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].

8. Tromsø, Norway

The frigid daytime terrain of Tromsø offers a hint at what lights up the sky at night.
Jekaterina Nikitina/Taxi/Getty Images

Northern 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 located north of the Arctic Circle, making it closer to the North Pole [source: Fjord Travel].

While you can never be 100 percent certain of an aurora viewing, in Tromsø, it's as close to a guarantee as possible: About half of the city's dark, and clear nights boast excellent light shows [source: Hansen]. And because darkness covers the city about nine months out of the year, you can often see the aurora in the afternoons, 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.

7. Murmansk, Kola Peninsula, Russia

The Kola Peninsula has cloudy skies, but if you happen to catch a clear night in a prime viewing month, you just might see a light show.
Yevgen Timashov/E+/Getty Images

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 ("aurora season") — February, March, September and October — if the sky is clear, you can almost count on the lights, and they may last for days at a time [source: Gonzalez].

The downside? Rain and snow are common here so that clear sky isn't guaranteed [source: BuroMoscow]. You'll want to check the weather forecast for sure.

6. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

The rustic accommodations in Kangerlussuaq might make Greenland all the more charming for a Northern Lights trip.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Greenland is not for the meek. Covered extensively in glacial ice, this arctic island is for explorers [source: FDN].

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 not as developed as others on this list. Getting around means traveling by dog sleds and snowmobiles, and there's the limited lodging you have to deal with — a hotel, a couple of cabins, rented rooms in village homes [source: Mother Nature Network]. For some, this might take Kangerlussuaq out of the Northern Lights tour; for others, it will make it the first stop.

The Northern Lights, while rare from 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.

5. South Pole, Antarctica

Not many get a chance to see the aurora australis from Antarctica. This is the view from the British Antarctic Survey base.
Doug Allan/The Image Bank/Getty Images

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 the year, but winter is the best time to see the lights [source: IAATO]. Still, the Antarctic tourist season offers the best chance out there to see the aurora australis.

However, there are more hospitable locations where visitors might catch a glimpse — if the sun is in an especially active state and producing particularly strong solar storms.

4. Tasmania, Australia

Even if you don't catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights, Tasmania is still a true tourist destination in its own right.
Scott E Barbour/The Image Bank/Getty Images

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 graced 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.

3. Stewart Island, New Zealand

Rugged Stewart Island is occasionally lit up by the aurora Australis.
Mark Carwardine/Iconica/Getty Images

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 also goes by 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.

2. South Georgia Island

South Georgia Island may be difficult to get to, but the views (aurora or not) are stunning.
Rick Price/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

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 almost exclusively serves as a research base. It's tough to get there — boats and boat-based aircraft are the only options [source: BAS]. Most tourists who visit (and perhaps glimpse the aurora in its skies) do so by cruise ship.

1. Ushuaia, Argentina

Catching the aurora australis in Ushuaia is tough, but touring South America's southernmost city is also an event.
Walter Bibikow/Taxi/Getty Images

Located at the southern tip of Argentina, this is one of the southernmost cities on the globe [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.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Best Spots on Earth to Watch the Auroras

Is it strange that I dedicated half an article on 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 seem 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, this is 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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