You might be surprised by the variety of optical phenomena we have the privilege of viewing on our beautiful planet. Count yourself lucky if you’ve been an audience to some of these performances by Mother Nature, including the northern lights, sun dogs, fire rainbows, light pillars and the rare Brocken spectre. Keep your eyes on the skies to check these five off your list!

1. Northern Lights

Among the most well-known sky phenomena are the northern lights—gorgeous displays of green to pink hues that can be viewed in the night sky in the far north during certain times of the year. Several destinations offer clear viewing opportunities, including Alaska, Canada and Iceland. Natural Habitat Adventures’ Northern Lights & Arctic Exploration itinerary is the ultimate way to experience this natural beauty. (More on that below!)

2. Sun Dogs

Sun dogs, or mock sun/parhelion, as they are also known, are halo effects. They display as bright spots on one or both sides of the sun. These patches of light are created by the refraction of light through ice crystals. While they can be viewed anywhere in the world, sometimes multiple times a week, your chances are better in cooler climes and when cirrus clouds are prevalent.

Sun dog Halo effect around winter morning sun, clouds inversion and snow covered trees

3. Fire Rainbows

Another halo effect you might observe when cirrus clouds are around are circumhorizontal arcs, also called fire rainbows. Light passing through clouds at a high altitude creates a colorful streak parallel to the horizon, sometimes appearing like a colorful fire along the surface. Given the conditions required to create such an effect, these arcs cannot be viewed north of the 55° north latitude or south of the 55° south latitude.

circumhorizon arc and halo fire rainbow

4. Light Pillars

A rather rare sight to see, light pillars appear as vertical beams shooting upward into the sky from the ground. Conditions must be just right to view this phenomenon—cold weather, forming flat crystals close to the ground, which then reflect light. Light pillars have been viewed in countries with extremely cold temperatures, such as Finland and Russia.

Light Pillars; The lights are from a meteorological condition where ice crystals floating in the air collect and focus the light from artificial sources into "light pillars."

5. Brocken Spectre

Another rare sky phenomenon is the Brocken spectre. This refers to the magnified shadow of an onlooker standing at a higher altitude with the sun shining from behind them. Due to the misty or foggy conditions at such a height, the light projecting the shadow through the mist gives the impression of an enormous, shadowy figure ringed in a multicolored halo ahead of you.

brocken spectre green rolling rocky hills

Many more such atmospheric phenomena have been observed and recorded over time. If you see any of these during your travels or near where you reside, consider yourself among the lucky few to share the thrill of viewing such a magnificent sight.

Where Can You See the Northern Lights?

Also called the aurora borealis, this natural phenomenon is easily observed at high altitudes in northern regions. Popular northern lights viewing destinations include places closer to the poles, such as Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Antarctica. In fact, you can view the northern lights in some areas most nights of the year. They sometimes even appear during the day, though it is easier to observe them with the naked eye in the dark.

So, what exactly causes the northern lights? When charged particles such as electrons and protons interact with gases in the upper atmosphere, the resulting billions of flashes produce a sequence of lights that look like they are dancing around in the sky. Sometimes these forms appear in waves and clouds with uncertain shapes moving around aimlessly in the air. Other times, they look like solid masses of light suspended from above, alternating between darker and lighter shades of different colors. Those colors depend on how much oxygen or nitrogen there is in the atmosphere.

Bright green northern lights illuminate night sky with stars in winter in Churchill

© Eddy Savage

Photography enthusiasts and travelers of the past and present continue to be mesmerized by the radiant light show every time it occurs—and rightly so. For those who do not live in locations where the aurora borealis is easily sighted, traveling to such a region is usually a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be cherished.

Does climate change affect these phenomena?

Thankfully, there appears to be no research proving any threat thus far directly to the northern lights or any other optical phenomena because of climate change or global warming. There is, however, some concern about the effects of climate change on the different destinations where such phenomena can usually be viewed.

Northern lights over crystal snow covered trees in winter in Churchill Canada arctic

© Eddy Savage

Global warming has resulted in rising temperatures, causing permafrost to melt, which releases more methane into the environment and causes increased global warming. This cycle results in the destruction of infrastructure in some destinations, which, over time, could become a hindrance to viewing sky phenomena.

Another concern is that light pollution in densely populated areas or frequently visited destinations may make viewing such phenomena more difficult over the years. Cloud formations could obstruct views, or changes in weather patterns typically not observed during a certain season in a region could change when certain phenomena occur.

Every action to reduce our contributions to global warming and climate change helps ensure that we’re able to continue viewing magnificent atmospheric phenomena—for ourselves and future generations. And this includes traveling responsibly and offsetting carbon emissions from transportation! Nat Hab’s northern lights adventure is one of the best ways to view the northern lights and enjoy the experience in an eco-friendly manner. There’s nothing more beautiful than chancing upon unexpected visuals in the sky as you travel to new and old destinations.

Natural Habitat Adventures and WWF guests and guides taking a selfie under Churchill’s northern lights

© Eddy Savage