The northern lights, what are they and where to view them in the U.S.?

First off the official name is aurora borealis, which essentially means ‘dawn of the north'. For those of you south of the equator, you have to head to the Northern Hemisphere to view these magnificent bands of light. In fact, people from all over the world head as far north as necessary to catch the skies at their finest.

So what are the northern lights? According to the Northern Lights Centre the phenomenon is caused by "collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere." This symphonic light display dances about 60 or so miles above the earth – and travels even further up in space for possibly hundreds of miles.

The colors are created because of the different gas particles located at distinct layers in our atmosphere. Green is the most common caused by the oxygen about 60 miles up. Then we've got red caused by oxygen even higher up in our atmosphere, about 200 miles to be more precise. Lastly, the nitrogen that's present produces the blues and purples we sometimes see.

Where in the United States can you go to witness the northern lights? Alaska! And how about when? Winter is best. The dark night skies during this time of year provide near-perfect viewing. Though it is possible see the northern lights during spring and fall, too, they just won't be as bold and bright. 

Another thing to note, cities tend to produce a lot of light pollution. That means they throw a lot of light into the sky making it harder to view the stars, and most importantly, the northern lights.

Are you in Alaska on locum tenens assignment currently? You can head to the Far North (Barrow) or the Interior (Fairbanks) to gain almost unobstructed views of the northern lights. Here's a handy little website that will actually tell you the best places to see these color-filled night skies.

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