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Best places to see the northern lights

Northern Lights Bear Creek Alaska

Photo: NASA/U.S. Air Force, Senior Airman Joshua Strang

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Amazing aurora borealis

One of nature's most spectacular phenomena is the aurora borealis, colloquially referred to as the northern lights. Caused by geomagnetic storms in the outer sections of the Earth's atmosphere, these amazing light shows are most visible in the autumn and winter, when the Northern Hemisphere’s nights are at their longest. Many people would not even be aware of these nature-made fireworks if not for the pictures sometimes published on the Internet and in glossy magazines like National Geographic. These photographs are usually taken north of the Arctic Circle, where the northern lights are at their brightest. 

Depending on conditions and visibility, the aurora borealis can be seen as far south as the northern contiguous United States. Sightings are not guaranteed, however, and even aurora-seekers in places like Maine and Michigan's Upper Peninsula can go a year or longer without seeing the even faintest glow in the northern sky. Alaska is the American northern lights destination of choice. Around the world, other hotspots like northern Scandinavia and Greenland draw serious aurora-seekers because of their consistently clear skies and the brightness of the lights. 

Want to see the northern lights this year? Your chances are good even if you can’t make it as far north as the Arctic Circle. Scientists hypothesize that the strength of these natural light shows waxes and wanes on an 11-year cycle, and the winter of 2012-2013 is expected to bring near-peak viewing conditions. If you want to see the aurora borealis at their most spectacular this year, travel to one of these six destinations. (Text: Josh Lew)