The northern lights dance above Churchill, Canada. Shades of green and yellow flash when particles from the sun collide with oxygen.

Stocktrek Images, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo


Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • People, Places, and Environments • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Science, Technology, and Society • Global Connections


Chasing the Northern Lights

This is the best time of year to see nature’s dazzling display of lights—but you have to head north first.

Question: How are the northern lights a part of life in the Arctic?

It’s not easy to get to Churchill, Canada. No roads connect the tiny town in the north of the country to the rest of the world. The only way to get there is by taking a small plane or train across the frozen tundra. 

But that doesn’t stop thousands of visitors from traveling to the remote location each winter in search of one of nature’s most breathtaking wonders: the northern lights. These dazzling displays streak across the night sky with swirling shades of green, blue, pink, purple, red, and orange. 

“It’s like a river of colors dancing in the sky,” says Dave Daley, a sled dog racer in Churchill and member of the Métis, an Indigenous group in Canada. “It’s always amazing and always different.” 

Spectacle in the Sky

The northern lights are also known as the aurora borealis (uh-ROR-uh bor-ee-AL-is). The lights, called auroras, are created when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with gases high in Earth’s atmosphere. The color of the lights varies depending on the type of gas. The shapes can also differ. Some auroras, for example, stretch out like bands, while others make arcs or ripple like waves.

But seeing auroras in person isn’t as simple as just looking up in the sky. There is one main area on Earth from which the northern lights are visible. Known as the auroral oval zone, it includes the Arctic and surrounding regions (see "Where the Sky Lights Up," below). Churchill, a town of about 900 residents, lies just inside the auroral oval zone. 

Part of the reason the zone offers such good views is that many places within it experience extended stretches of darkness in the winter. Some get no sunlight for months. 

The stunning northern lights shine brightest during long, dark winter nights.

A Way of Life

In the Arctic, the northern lights are a regular part of life for the nearly 4 million people who reside there. They include hunters, herders, and Indigenous groups who have lived off the land for generations and have adapted to the frigid temperatures.

Many cultures from the area hold special beliefs about the lights. A legend in Finland says the aurora borealis is created by a fire fox racing across the sky. As the mythical fox leaps above the snowy land, its tail spreads sparks. In Churchill, where Indigenous groups such as the Dene, Cree, Inuit, and Métis live, many believe the lights are the souls of their ancestors watching over them. 

The auroras are important to more than just local cultures. They also help support local economies through tourism. For many travelers, observing the phenomenon is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 


A visitor in Finland watches the northern lights from inside a glass dome.

Over the past decade, the number of people flocking to Arctic destinations to see the northern lights has surged—and so have the number of hotels, restaurants, and specialty tours. In northern Norway alone, visitors are expected to jump by almost 10 percent this winter, to about 350,000 people, according to a tourism industry group. 

Daley predicts Churchill will have its busiest year as well. He runs a tour company for adventure seekers hoping to experience the awe-inspiring sight. 

The lights can be seen on as many as 300 days a year in Churchill. But the best months to view them are from January through March, Daley says. That’s when the skies are the darkest for the longest stretches. There are also fewer clouds on cold, crisp nights. 

During this time, most birds have migrated south. Polar bears, which can frequently be spotted around town, are off roaming the Arctic sea ice. Even the beluga whales have left for warmer waters. “When we get quiet and cold and clear,” Daley says, “that’s our northern lights season.”

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