Northern Lights in India: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Event Explained

Northern Lights in India: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Event Explained

The sight of the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, is a mesmerizing spectacle that draws skywatchers from all corners of the globe.

But for those in India, the question often arises – can we see northern lights in India?

The answer, unfortunately, is that under normal circumstances, the Northern Lights are not visible in India. This is because they occur primarily in high-latitude regions around the Arctic and Antarctic poles. Here’s why:

Earth’s Magnetic Field: Our planet’s magnetic field shields us from most of the charged particles ejected by the sun during solar storms. However, these particles get channelled towards the poles by the magnetic field lines, creating the auroras.Geographical Location: Since India lies at a much lower latitude (between 6° and 34° north), the geomagnetic field lines are weaker here. This reduces the chances of the charged particles reaching the upper atmosphere, thereby preventing auroral displays.

However, in a rare and extraordinary event, the elusive Northern Lights did grace the skies of Ladakh, India, in May 2024. This sighting, captured by the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO), sent shockwaves through the astronomy community.

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, are dazzling displays of coloured light rippling across the night sky. These mesmerizing phenomena occur when energetic particles from the sun collide with Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The colours we see in the Northern Lights depend on which gas molecules the particles collide with:

Green: Oxygen Red: Oxygen at high altitudes Blue: Nitrogen

Why was the Aurora Borealis Visible in Ladakh in 2024?

The key to understanding this rare occurrence lies in a phenomenon known as Solar Cycle 25. The sun undergoes an 11-year cycle of increased and decreased activity.

During peak periods, the sun’s surface witnesses a rise in sunspots, which are areas of intense magnetic activity. These sunspots erupt with powerful solar flares, releasing charged particles that can trigger geomagnetic storms.

Solar Cycle 25 began in December 2019 and is predicted to reach its peak in July 2025. While the peak hasn’t arrived yet, the sun’s activity has been surprisingly strong in 2024. This resulted in a particularly powerful solar storm that unleashed a significant amount of charged particles.

The geomagnetic storm associated with this solar event was strong enough to push the auroral oval, the region where auroras typically occur, further south than usual.

This allowed the Northern Lights to be faintly visible from the high-altitude region of Ladakh, which enjoys relatively less light pollution compared to other parts of India.

So, Can We Expect More Northern Lights Displays in India?

While the 2024 sighting was a unique event, it’s difficult to predict with certainty if or when we might see the Northern Lights again in India. However, with Solar Cycle 25 expected to be quite active, there’s a possibility of more geomagnetic storms in the coming years. If these storms are strong enough, there’s a small chance of faint auroral displays at high-altitude locations in India, like Ladakh.

Best Time to See the Northern Lights (Globally):

For those planning a trip to witness the Northern Lights outside of India, the best time to go is generally during the peak of the solar cycle, which for Cycle 25 is expected to be around July 2025. However, strong auroral displays can also occur outside peak periods, especially during intense geomagnetic storms.

Tips for Chasing the Northern Lights

  • Travel North: Head towards locations closer to the Arctic Circle, like Norway, Iceland, Canada, or Alaska.

  • Minimise Light Pollution: Seek out dark skies away from city lights for optimal viewing.

  • Monitor Space Weather Reports: Keep an eye on websites like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center for updates on geomagnetic storms

The sight of the Northern Lights in Ladakh in 2024 serves as a reminder of the dynamic nature of our solar system. While these celestial displays might be a rare sight in India, the knowledge that they’re not entirely out of the realm of possibility adds a touch of magic to stargazing in our skies.