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What Are the Colors of the Northern Lights

What Causes the Colors of the Aurora? Northern Lights Colors Explained

|August 23, 2023
Anhelina is a cat mom with a passion for cycling, adventure, and writing. She spends her days inspiring and educating other travelers through her stories by going down rabbit holes of research.

Ever Wondered How Northern Lights Get Their Colors? Discover the Northern Lights' mesmerizing world and discover the secrets behind their captivating colors. From dazzling green and pale yellow to elusive red and ethereal purple, this article uncovers the science and magic behind each hue of Auroras!


What Is the Aurora Borealis?

The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, are one of nature's most dazzling displays of light and color. This cosmic phenomenon occurs when electrically charged particles collide with atoms and molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of light. For more interactive knowledge about this phenomenon, our Northern Lights & Aurora Museum tour is the perfect combination!

The Northern Lights are known for their vibrant display of colors that light up the night sky. These colors range from dazzling green and pale yellow to elusive red and ethereal purple. Each color tells a unique story of its interaction with the atmosphere.

Historically, the Northern Lights have held significant meaning for many cultures. Indigenous peoples, for example, have often viewed them as important spiritual symbols. Today, they continue to captivate us, and many travel across the globe for a chance to witness this natural spectacle.

But why do the Northern Lights come in different colors? This guide will take you on a journey through the science behind the captivating colors of the Northern Lights.

The colors of Northern Lights

The Science Behind the Colors of Aurora

The Northern Lights occur when the sun's electrically charged particles, also known as the solar wind, enter the Earth's atmosphere. The solar wind carries the particles that collide with Earth's atmospheric gasses to produce the stunning light display. The collision between the solar wind and the gasses in the Earth's atmosphere causes the atoms to become excited, releasing energy in the form of light.

Green Light and Pale Yellow Lights - Collisions With Atomic Oxygen

Green Northern Lights reflecting on the lake’s surface

The most common colors of the Northern Lights are pale yellow and green light. These colors are produced when the charged particles from the sun collide with atomic oxygen at about 96 kilometers (60 miles) above the Earth's surface. As the excited oxygen atom returns to its normal state, it releases energy through a green or yellow light.

The green and pale yellow lights are the most common because of the abundance of oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere and the specific altitude at which these interactions occur. This altitude is within the common auroral zone, where the majority of auroras occur. The green and yellow lights are often seen as curtains or diffuse glows spread across the sky, creating a mesmerizing spectacle for the viewers.

Red Lights - Rare High Altitude Phenomenon

Red Northern Lights

Red is the rarest of the Northern Lights' colors and is created when solar particles collide with atomic oxygen at an altitude of over 241 kilometers (150 miles). At this altitude, the collisions are rare and produce a short-lived red flash. If you spot the red Northern Lights, consider yourself very lucky!

The red lights are a sight to behold. They often appear as a crimson margin at the top of a green aurora due to the high altitude at which they occur. The red lights are a testament to the power of the sun as the solar particles have to travel a greater distance and with enough energy to reach higher altitudes and produce the red light.

Purple and Blue Lights - Interactions With Nitrogen, Oxygen, and Hydrogen

Colorful purple Northern Lights above the mountains

Purple and blue Northern Lights occur when the charged particles from the sun interact with nitrogen in the Earth's atmosphere. Purple is also caused by the interaction of solar particles with oxygen and hydrogen. Purple light has a shorter wavelength than green and yellow, so it's less common. You may instead see a mix of purple and green, which is a stunning and unique sight.

The purple and blue lights are often seen at the lower edges of the aurora, where the charged particles interact with the nitrogen and hydrogen in the atmosphere.

What Is the Rarest Northern Light Color?

Red and purple Northern Lights

While the Northern Lights are most commonly seen in shades of green and yellow, they can also appear in other colors. Among these, red is considered the rarest color of the Northern Lights. 

Red auroras occur at high altitudes of over 241 kilometers (150 miles), where the air is thinner. Here, the solar particles collide with oxygen atoms less frequently, making red lights rare and short-lived. These rare collisions produce a stunning ethereal red glow that lights up the night sky.

If you're fortunate enough to witness the red Northern Lights, it's a sight you're likely to remember. This elusive color, combined with the mystical dance of the lights, creates a spectacle that truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Where to See Aurora’s Dance of Colors

Northern Lights above Kirkjufell mountain in Iceland

The Northern Lights are a spectacular reminder of the beauty of diversity. The different colors that light up the northern skies result from the complex interaction between Earth's environment and space. The colors of the Northern Lights provide a powerful reminder of the intricate and complex interconnectivity of everything in our universe.

Specific times and places will increase your chances if you plan to see the Northern Lights. They are most visible in the Polar Regions during winter, when the nights are the longest. Some of the best places to see them include Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.

The Northern Lights in Iceland

Friends camping at night and watching Northern Lights

Iceland's location on the magnetic pole makes it one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. The country's dark nights, free from city light pollution, provide an ideal backdrop for the lights to shine in their full glory. The lights in Iceland are predominantly green and blue, with occasional displays of red and purple.

Iceland's unique geographical location and atmospheric conditions make it a prime spot for viewing the Northern Lights. The long winter nights and clear skies provide the perfect canvas for the auroras to paint their colors. The lack of light pollution in many parts of the country allows for a clear view of the lights, making the experience even more magical.

To fully enjoy the Northern Lights experience, choosing the right accommodation is key. Check out these best hotels in Iceland, known for their prime Northern Lights viewing locations.

In Iceland, where the Northern Lights are a frequent spectacle, many people choose to plan a unique romantic getaway. A Northern Lights honeymoon vacation in Iceland is a popular choice, offering newlyweds the chance to start their journey together under the enchanting dance of the Aurora Borealis. In fact, the mesmerizing display of lights has also become a favorite backdrop for many couples getting engaged, making the moment truly unforgettable.

If you're planning a trip to Iceland and want to experience the magic of the Northern Lights firsthand, consider booking a Northern Lights tour for the best viewing opportunities. Our Magical Auroras tour from Reykjavík is a thrilling pursuit of the phenomenon, which will lead you away from the bright city lights and into rural Iceland.

Best Time and Places to See the Northern Lights in Iceland

Couple watching the Northern Lights together in Iceland

The best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is during the winter months, from late September to the end of March. This is when the nights are the longest, providing a larger window to witness this incredible phenomenon. Some of the best places to view the lights in Iceland include Thingvellir National Park, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Find out more about the best time and places to see the Auroras in Iceland in our full guide.

Conclusion

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are a magical experience that draws people worldwide to the Northern Hemisphere, particularly to Iceland. Whether it's the green or blue light dancing in the dark sky, the spectacle never fails to mesmerize its audience.

Remember, the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon; their visibility depends on solar activity and weather conditions. So even if you're in the right place at the right time, there's no guarantee you'll see them. But with some luck, you'll be treated to one of the most spectacular shows on Earth.

Planning your trip to see the Northern Lights can be overwhelming, but this Aurora vacation itinerary for Iceland can help you make the most of your visit. So, pack your bags, and prepare for an unforgettable journey to witness the enchanting Northern Lights!

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