(Photo courtesy of Lifetime Adventures/Dan McDonough)

One of nature's most impressive displays - the northern lights - have been out in full force in the skies above the Mat-Su Valley already this winter. Ribbons of color have been dancing in the sky from Talkeetna to Lake Louise since early September, giving visitors and residents ample opportunities to marvel at an amazing phenomenon.

We all can see the northern lights, but what exactly are they?

Simply, the aurora is a glow in the Earth's atmosphere created by energy particles entering the upper atmosphere. But that's the easy definition. It gets pretty scientific after that. These energy particles come from the magnetosphere and travel along magnetic field lines near the Earth's poles and create light through the collision of atoms and molecules.

So how exactly are they caused?

Again, a scientific dictionary may be needed to fully comprehend, but we'll try to make this simple. Basically, the sun's outer atmosphere is called the solar wind, which is filled with protons and electrons that are continuously "boiling" due to the sun's heat. When this layer coincides with the Earth's magnetosphere, creating those collisions.

The aurora is best viewed on clear, cold nights. Often, they'll start showing colors in the late evening and continue throughout the night. Light pollution is one of the biggest obstacles in viewing the northern lights, so it's recommended to find locations away from towns and cities.

One of the best places to view the aurora is in Hatcher Pass. The above photo, taken by Dan McDonough of Lifetime Adventures, is a spectacular shot of the northern lights dancing above Independence Mine earlier this winter. Other great places include the Knik River Valley, as well as the Talkeetna and Denali State Park areas.

Forecasters can predict the aurora somewhat. For an updated forecast, you can visit the web site for the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute.

Pack warm clothing, a Thermos of hot chocolate and find your perfect aurora viewing location - it's one of nature's most amazing shows.