STARS OF WONDER: The northern lights, the Milky Way and a meteor are all captured in this photo, taken by photographer Tommy Eliassen in northeast Norway on Oct. 13, 2011. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Christmas already stirs widespread interest in bright lights and the North Pole, so it's a natural time to revisit the year's best auroras. They're like Mother Nature's Christmas lights, except they can shine all year without annoying the neighbors.
Of course, their neighborhoods are also relatively sparse — most auroras occur within several hundred miles of the North Pole (aurora borealis) or South Pole (aurora australis), meaning some of Earth's most amazing visual effects are in some of its least populated places.
2011 wasn't like most years, though. An 11-year solar cycle that governs sunspot activity has recently shifted into its more potent phase, gearing up for an expected peak sometime in 2013. That not only boosted auroras near the poles this year, but even sent a few cascading into mid-latitude regions. In late October, for example, a major solar flare generated visible aurora borealis displays as far south as Atlanta.
Even better performances may be on the horizon in 2012, although some scientists predict a rare "hibernation" of sunspots next year despite the solar cycle. For now, at least, here are seven of the best auroras that were caught on film in 2011:
This time-lapse video was filmed in early 2011 as part of a tourism promotion for Finland's Lapland region, and it makes a pretty compelling case:
International Space Station
The crews of ISS missions 28 and 29 used a low-light 4K camera to take the photos in this time-lapse compilation, offering a bird's-eye view of aurora borealis and australis:
In March, photographer Terje Sørgjerd spent a week in remote northeastern Norway to capture the stunning images in this time-lapse sequence:
Perry Lake, Kansas
It would be easy to assume you aren't in Kansas anymore upon seeing this, but it was part of the widespread aurora borealis that stretched deep into the U.S. on Oct. 24 — even into Kansas. Photographer Stephen Locke filmed it over Perry Lake:
Released in April as the trailer for an upcoming film about South Iceland, this time-lapse clip features dazzling northern lights over the Jökulsárlón glacial lake:
It may not be quite as weird as seeing northern lights in Kansas, but southwestern Michigan isn't accustomed to scenes like this, either. The time-lapse montage was also recorded during the Oct. 24 aurora storms:
This final video, filmed in early 2011 by photographer Valentine Zhiganov, takes place in Russia's northwestern Murmansk region, located near the Barents Sea:
The opinions expressed by MNN Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of MNN.com. While we have reviewed their content to make sure it complies with our Terms and Conditions, MNN is not responsible for the accuracy of any of their information.