From northern Europe to North America, our complete guide to getting your best shot at spotting this bewitching natural phenomenon.
The green stream of the Northern Lights cavorts around the sky, twisting and spiralling like ectoplasm in the Ghostbusters movie.
It’s not hard to imagine that it’s a living thing.
It’s easy to imagine that it’s dancing.
It seems to lose energy, becomes less vivid, but then gathers strength again, balloons and streams viridescent across the sky.
I’ve seen the Northern Lights from the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada to Norway and Greenland, and the interest in northern Europe, particularly Norway, Iceland and Greenland is a real local phenomenon at the moment.
OK, stick with me ... here comes the science ...
The sun is at the centre of our solar system and its many magnetic fields twist and distort as it rotates. When they become “knotted together”, they burst in what we call sunspots. Mostly these happen in pairs, and can be many times the size of Earth’s diameter.
Now comes the second element of this scenario. The centre of the sun is 15 million degrees Celsius, so it’s no surprise that the surface boils and bubbles.
Particles escape from sunspot regions on the surface, speeding particles of plasma, known as “solar wind”, into space. About 40 hours later these highly charged electrons reach us, and when they do, they collide with Earth’s atmospheric elements to create the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights are scientifically titled aurora borealis and named after the Roman goddess of dawn.
Those in the know say it’s also actually possible to be too far north to see the Northern Lights well.
So, scientifically speaking and based on geomagnetic readings, in Europe, the northern parts of Norway and Finland are best for viewing the Northern Lights.
The islands of Svalbard, a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean, are very good for Northern Lights viewing, even though they are about halfway between continental Europe and the North Pole.
This is because, if geomagnetic activity is low and there’s poor viewing over continental Europe, the chances are that Svalbard will still get a good show as it catches aurora activity even if there’s the vaguest sniff of geomagnetic activity.
The Northern Lights actually happen all year, of course, but in the summer, from April to August, sunlight overpowers them and makes them invisible. There’s a better chance in the northern autumn but it’s best of all in the Arctic winter from January to March — and best of all over thick, pristine snow.
A good tip is to follow science websites that track solar activity and solar storms. For example, for northern Europe there are useful websites such as aurora-service.eu/aurora- forecast. For Alaska, there’s good information at gi.alaska.edu/auroraforecast.
With your smartphone, search the app store for “aurora” to find aurora forecast apps.
The Svalbard Islands are in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, between the 74th and 81st parallels, and among the best places in the world for Northern Lights viewing. The “aurora season” is between November and February, during the polar night, when there’s, at best, a rather eerie blue twilight. Longyearbyen, on the island of Svalbard, is the first spot to head for.
There are plenty of local aurora tours and accommodation might well be at Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen.
Go to visitnorway.com to search “Svalbard Northern Lights package offer”.
But there are other good and accessible places in Norway with aurora viewing:
- Tromso, 350km north of the Arctic Circle.
- Hammerfest, billed as the world’s northernmost town.
- Alta, the biggest town in Norway’s northernmost region.
- Tana Bru, also great for salmon fishing.
With Reykjavik an easy short trip from London, Birmingham and Edinburgh, for example, and relatively inexpensive, this is a good way to see the northern lights.
In the Kiruna region of Sweden, there’s the Icehotel at Jukkasjarvi, and Northern Lights tours. The Icehotel is born out of an ice sculpture course in 1989 — an ice house was built as the art course venue. An idea was born. Now, every winter, ice is cut from the frozen Torne River and an Icehotel and Icebar is made by artists and builders. And there are less-expensive accommodation options, too.
For viewing in comfort, there are the glass igloos at the Kakslautten Arctic Resort in Finnish Lapland. Brilliant. Viewing can even be good in autumn (their shoulder season is from August 24 to October 30) before the winter sets in from November — but from then on is the best. And there’s plenty more to do there, from husky, reindeer and snowmobile safaris to sleigh rides.
Kangerlussuaq sits at the end of the 190km-long Kangerlussuaq Fjord and those in the know revere this as a good place to see the Northern Lights. The latitude, lack of light, depth and trajectory of the fjord are all contributing factors. Aurora borealis is particularly good and consistent between December and March.
Fairbanks is directly under the “aurora oval” where the Northern Lights are most frequently seen. There are nightly excursions with companies such as North Alaska Tour Company. Anchorage has good viewing and it’s possible to book multi-day excursions to Talkeetna. For really serious travellers, Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge is 320km north of Fairbanks, right on the edge of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Brilliant. gofarnorth.com
The area in which the Northern Lights can be seen — the “Aurora Oval” — covers most of the country, including Yukon, Northern Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. But I have seen the lights from Yukon and Northwest Territories. A good starting point is Whitehorse (a town I’m fond of), and even the Northern Lights Resort & Spa. There are plenty of local evening tours to see the lights, but the NLRS also packages up two-nights viewing at the local Northern Tales Viewing Site, two-nights viewing from the lodge, four-nights accommodation and transport from $CAN1095 ($1086) per person.
For travellers who really want to respond to the call of the wild (after all, this is Jack London territory), I’ve stayed at and recommend the log cabins and warm welcome at remote Tagish Wilderness Lodge.
Yes, it’s possible, but you’ll note that Scotland’s bottom of my list. Best spots are on the coast of Caithness in the far north. Were I to have to pick a month, February would give the best chance of seeing aurora borealis. The Shetland and Orkney islands get lights, and another favourable spot is the Moray coast, from Nairn to Portknockie. I’ve seen the Lights on the top tip of the Isle of Skye, albeit quite faint.
Picture at top: Aurora reflected in sand in Borgarnes, Iceland. Picture by Anna Gorin/Getty Images.
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