The Northern Lights (aurora borealis) are caused by energized particles from the Sun that collide with gases in Earth’s atmosphere. The collisions cause the dazzling light displays known as aurorae; in the southern hemisphere, they’re aurora australis.
The lights can appear up to 400 miles above Earth’s surface and change color depending on the gases the solar particles are interacting with. The photography site Capture the Atlas has released the fifth edition of its Northern Lights Photographer of the Year contest. Here are the 25 winning images aurorae around the world.
This image shows lights above Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The glow is reflected in the river—despite temperatures dropping below -22°F in the winter, the rivers don’t often freeze over.
This shot from Iceland captures a recent snowfall under the Northern Lights. The aurorae frames the peaks below, as well as a person silhouetted under their vastness.
Taken at Alaska’s Castner Glacier, this image shows a person holding a light under the aurorae from within an ice cave. It was a two-hour hike to the cave, which has since collapsed. “You have to chase every opportunity before it’s gone,” said photographer David Erichsen in a Capture the Atlas release.
This shot shows the jagged peaks of the Lofoten Islands in Norway. The tallest peak almost seems to scrape the aurora, a gossamer of pale green in the night sky.
Taken in Northern Russia in February 2022, getting this image required braving frigid temperatures. At about -22 degrees Fahrenheit, “you can only leave your tripod in one position because it will freeze, and you won’t be able to get it up or down,” said photographer Jose D. Riquelme. Behold the result: an arresting shot of the aurora’s arcs, sweeping across the sky.
This unique shot captures two cosmic phenomena—the large aurorae but also the glorious arc of the Milky Way galaxy. At left, a lighthouse on New Zealand’s Nugget Point shines.
This image uses geometry to pull the viewer in. At bottom, snowcapped stones are soft, lumpy spheres. In the sky, the aurora’s streaks make for a nice linear contrast. Separating the two are the wintry forests of Murmansk, Russia.
In this image, the aurora lines are mirrored by streaks of snow on the ground. Between the two is a towering peak of the Lofoten Islands, Norway, where plenty find a good spot for observing the cosmic lights.
There’s a lot going on in this thrilling photo. Three arcs illuminate the sky here: two belong to the aurora borealis and one to the Milky Way galaxy. Below the Milky Way’s arc is a splotch of light—the Andromeda Galaxy. Between the aurora and the Milky Way is a shooting star, and above the aurora is the Big Dipper. The peaks of Norway pepper the bottom of the photo.
Here, a frozen waterway sits below streaks of the Northern Lights in Finland. The ethereal scene feels timeless—fitting, considering the thousands of human generations that have probably witnessed this atmospheric light show.
Here, water flows in the direction of the photographer and the Northern Lights seem to follow a similar path. Both lead toward the vanishing point of the photograph—somewhere near the Icelandic horizon.
A large hill juts out in front of an emerald tapestry of the Northern Lights. Below, a waterfall drops into a dark pool.
The Milky Way and aurora over New Zealand’s Taiari Beach. This aurora shows up in bands of salmon pink and yellow, due to the solar particles interacting with different gases in Earth’s atmosphere.
The title of the photo tells no lies. A wispy blueish-green aurorae appears over snow-capped mountains in Norway. Below, a dull reflection of the illustrious lights appears on a dark waterway.
At first glance, the Northern Lights are more reminiscent of a tropical bird or butterfly than an atmospheric phenomenon. (The title specifically refers to a tropical bird, whose own name is derived from that of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent of Mesoamerican mythology.)
As seen one Michigan night, the aurora is a vibrant combination of pink and yellow. In the foreground is the Point Betsie lighthouse on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
The remarkable landscapes of Iceland are capped off here by the wispy yellow-green arcs of the aurora. A distinctive hook shape illuminates the right corner of the image, hence its title.
This scene was captured in northern Russia, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an artist’s rendering of a Dr. Seuss illustration. Snow-laden trees sag under the weight, and the purplish green aurora complete the dreamy scene.
The Northern Lights have many nicknames, one of which (you guessed it) is the Queen of the North. In this stunningly composed photo, the aurorae appears to crown an Icelandic mountain.
This photo was taken on a moonless night, allowing the aurora to shine without competition. The luminous greens silhouette a dark mountain range and meadow on the ground.
The aurora reflects on a water body in Denmark. Through the pinkish light, the Big Dipper is visible. A person stands on the dock, apparently awed by the sight before them.
This psychedelic sight comes from Nordreisa, Norway. A human stands on a hillside for sense of scale. If you stare at the scene, concentric rings of color become apparent: a green shell, a purple ring within it, and another green ring within the purple.
Taken in bone-chilling temperatures more than 20 degrees below freezing Fahrenheit, this image shows a pale aurora above snow-covered trees. The image comes from Riisitunturi National Park in Finland.
This wild image of the aurora shows a kaleidoscope of color in several bands. The image was taken in Tromsø, Norway, and shows greens, yellows, reds and purples caused by solar particles hitting Earth’s atmosphere.
The green lights of the aurora borealis over Greenland. The photo was taken aboard an icebreaker vessel, so the photographer used a fast shutter speed. Below the aurora is the luminous Moon, which also reflects off the water.