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Make the most of the northern lights

Chad Blakley / Lights Over Lapland

The northern lights shimmer in the skies above Abisko National Park in Sweden on March 3. "In addition to the northern lights, you can also see a massive fireball streak across the sky," photographer Chad Blakley writes. "It was a fantastic night!"



It's prime time for the northern lights, and particularly for the far northern lights.

"I believe I just saw the most amazing aurora display I have ever seen," Chad Blakley, the photographer behind Lights Over Lapland, wrote from Sweden over the weekend. "I would send you more images, but I have to go back outside and take a few more photos first." (You can see the results in the time-lapse video below.)


Places like Sweden and Norway, Iceland and Finland, Alaska and Canada's Northwest Territories are prime viewing areas for the northern lights, because that's where the interactions between Earth's poles and the sun's geomagnetic storms are strongest. The fact that the sun's 11-year activity cycle is close to its predicted maximum should be adding to the show, although the storm activity has been mysteriously low so far

There's another factor that makes this month favorable for seeing the northern lights: Experts say that March and September, around the time of the year's two equinoxes, are just right for aurora-watching because the skies stay dark for a relatively long time, and yet the weather is relatively mild. December can get pretty chilly up north, and June is the time of the midnight sun — which is not conducive to seeing the aurora's delicate greenish glow.

Darkness is the key to seeing the aurora, whether you're in Abisko National Park in Sweden, or in Albany, N.Y. Stake out a place that's far from city lights with good northern exposure. The thinner and clearer the air, the better — which means you should be up on a mountain rather than down in a valley. The wee hours of the morning are the best time of night for spotting the northern lights.

If you're not in the prime aurora zone, spotting a good display is a matter of good timing, good luck and location, location, location.

Auroral displays are seldom seen much farther south than the northern tier of U.S. states, but every once in a while there's a strong storm that lights up the skies in America's midsection. To find out when a storm is brewing, check in with SpaceWeather.com, the University of Alaska's Aurora Forecast website and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, plus the prediction center's Facebook page and its Ovation aurora forecasting app. The Yukon Territory's Northern Lights Centre provides additional tips for aurora-watchers. You can also follow @Aurora_Alerts@AuroraMax and @AuroraWatch on Twitter. 

If you live too far south to see the lights with your own eyes, don't despair: You'll find plenty of auroral pictures in SpaceWeather.com's gallery, and Vimeo has lots of videos to show you. Got a great picture of the northern (or southern) lights? Feel free to share it via our FirstPerson photo-upload page

More auroral glories:


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.