Aurora Hunters Capture the Wonder of the Northern (and Southern) Lights

Across the Arctic, people have revered—and sometimes feared—eerie, shifting lights that arrived without warning in the night sky and never appeared the same way twice. Ancient explanations for the lights vary widely among the Saami, Tlingit, Vikings, and other northern cultures, changing from one fjord to the next and over centuries. The aurora borealis, or northern lights, have been described as the spirits of women who never married or of the stillborn; as restless, lonely souls of those who died from suicide or murder; as reflections glinting off the armor of fierce Valkyries; as malevolent spirits who might chop off your head if you whistled at them too loudly. No matter how they were explained, it appears that everyone who witnessed the lights was filled with wonder and the need to understand the phenomenon.

The first known documentation of auroras was more than 4,500 years ago in China, but some archaeologists have interpreted much older cave art as depictions of prehistoric auroral displays in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Auroras occur near both poles, but are more commonly reported in northern high latitudes simply because most humans—more than 80 percent—live north of the equator.

The Milky Way and curtain-like auroras fill a clear southern sky off Nugget Point, at the edge of New Zealand's remote Catlins.  While the island nation is too far north to see the aurora australis regularly, aurora-hunters flock to the Nugget Point lighthouse area for its dark skies and unobstructed view off the South Island's southeastern coast.
The Milky Way and curtain-like auroras fill a clear southern sky off Nugget Point, at the edge of New Zealand’s remote Catlins. While the island nation is too far north to see the aurora australis regularly, aurora-hunters flock to the Nugget Point lighthouse area for its dark skies and unobstructed view off the South Island’s southeastern coast. Douglas Thorne

Science has since sorted out most of the details about what auroras really are. Charged particles borne on a solar wind smack into Earth’s magnetic field and transfer their energy to oxygen and nitrogen in our upper atmosphere. The explosive process creates brief bursts of light, typically green and sometimes red (both from oxygen) and less commonly blue (from nitrogen), in regions near but not at the geomagnetic poles. (The exact area where auroras are visible, a band known as the auroral oval, fluctuates based on solar wind activity and shifts in the magnetic field, which also affect how individual auroras appear.) While the origin of auroras is no longer a mystery, these elusive, hauntingly beautiful phenomena still mesmerize anyone fortunate enough to see them.

Thanks to dedicated, aurora-chasing photographers, all of us can get a glimpse of these dancers in the sky. The travel photography blog Capture the Atlas (not affiliated with Atlas Obscura) recently announced their fifth annual curated Northern Lights Photographer of the Year collection, sharing dozens of images—of both northern and southern lights—that capture auroras in all their glory. Here are a few of our favorites.

The space weather version of fireworks blossom over Tromsø in northern Norway in the wee hours.  The multicolored display is the result of several electron-gas interactions that occurred in different layers of our atmosphere, likely tens or even hundreds of miles apart.  To us puny humans standing on the ground, the different auroras overlap and appear as a single brilliant explosion of light and color.
The space weather version of fireworks blossom over Tromsø in northern Norway in the wee hours. The multicolored display is the result of several electron-gas interactions that occurred in different layers of our atmosphere, likely tens or even hundreds of miles apart. To us puny humans standing on the ground, the different auroras overlap and appear as a single brilliant explosion of light and color. Vincent Beudez
Above an expanse of cottony <em>Eriophorum</em>, known as <em>pualunnguat</em> in some Inuktitut dialects, auroras arc over the rugged Tombstone mountain range in Canada’s Yukon Territory.  The green colors result from solar wind particles interacting with oxygen 75-110 miles above us.  What appear to be rays of bluish-white and purple on the image’s left are likely caused by the electrons colliding with nitrogen at a lower level in the sky.” width=”auto” data-kind=”article-image” id=”article-image-92424″ src=”https://img.atlasobscura.com/AA797qzZ6xfbqAj22RNj4o4cOrRvEIybzk5xJ6hLVn4/rt:fill/w:1200/el:1/q:81/sm:1/scp:1/ar:1/aHR0cHM6Ly9hdGxh/cy1kZXYuczMuYW1h/em9uYXdzLmNvbS91/cGxvYWRzL2Fzc2V0/cy9kMjc1MzgwMTY5/Mzk0MDBjNWFfX1Jh/Y2hlbCBKb25lcyBS/b3NzX0NhbmFkYS5q/cGVn.jpg”/><figcaption class=Above an expanse of cottony Eriophorumknown as pualunnguat in some Inuktitut dialects, auroras arc over the rugged Tombstone mountain range in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The green colors result from solar wind particles interacting with oxygen 75-110 miles above us. What appear to be rays of bluish-white and purple on the image’s left are likely caused by the electrons colliding with nitrogen at a lower level in the sky. Rachel Jones Ross
A panoramic view from one of the jagged peaks of Arctic Norway's Lofoten Islands offers an endless array of treats for the eye, from the Milky Way to a double rainbow–like arc of auroras.  There's even a shooting star in the center of the image, the Andromeda galaxy visible under the Milky Way, and, for good measure, the lingering light of a setting sun below the auroras.
A panoramic view from one of the jagged peaks of Arctic Norway’s Lofoten Islands offers an endless array of treats for the eye, from the Milky Way to a double rainbow–like arc of auroras. There’s even a shooting star in the center of the image, the Andromeda galaxy visible under the Milky Way, and, for good measure, the lingering light of a setting sun below the auroras. Giulio Cobianchi
The black sand beaches and oddly shaped sea stacks at Dyrhólaey, along Iceland's southern coast, have had starring roles in many a movie and tv show, but here they are overshadowed by a massive, rare red aurora.  The brilliant crimson body, framed by green “wings,” reminded photographer Luis Solano Pochet of the beautiful quetzal, a bird found in his native Costa Rica.  Red auroras are only slightly more common than finding a tropical bird in Iceland: The color results from charged particle collisions with oxygen in the very highest portions of our atmosphere, about 200 miles or more above us, and only during specific solar wind conditions.
The black sand beaches and oddly shaped sea stacks at Dyrhólaey, along Iceland’s southern coast, have had starring roles in many a movie and tv show, but here they are overshadowed by a massive, rare red aurora. The brilliant crimson body, framed by green “wings,” reminded photographer Luis Solano Pochet of the beautiful quetzal, a bird found in his native Costa Rica. Red auroras are only slightly more common than finding a tropical bird in Iceland: The color results from charged particle collisions with oxygen in the very highest portions of our atmosphere, about 200 miles or more above us, and only during specific solar wind conditions. Luis Solano Pochet
High on the west side of Michigan's “mitten,” the 19th-century Point Betsie Lighthouse competes with—and loses out to—the more brilliant northern lights.  While auroras can occasionally be seen in the lower 48 during periods of intense solar wind activity, they appear on the northern horizon rather than overhead.  The unusual pink and yellow colors are the result of oxygen and nitrogen mixing together.
High on the west side of Michigan’s “mitten,” the 19th-century Point Betsie Lighthouse competes with—and loses out to—the more brilliant northern lights. While auroras can occasionally be seen in the lower 48 during periods of intense solar wind activity, they appear on the northern horizon rather than overhead. The unusual pink and yellow colors are the result of oxygen and nitrogen mixing together. MaryBeth Kiczenski