1 The Northern Lights are featured on almost every traveller’s bucket list.
There are only a few phenomena that can capture one’s attention and imagination like the Aurora Borealis. The Northern lights are one of Mother Nature’s most jaw-dropping sights, listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
These spectacular awe-inspiring twirls of light are unpredictable and so fascinating, that once they start their dance in the sky, nobody can remain indifferent. They are so captivating, that in Iceland the police had to start giving warnings to foreigners to stop gazing at the lights while driving. We’ve all heard of them, we've seen the photos, but what exactly is the Aurora Borealis and what’s the best way to see them?
2The Northern lights are listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
What is an Aurora Borealis?
The Aurora is an incredible light show caused by collisions between electrically charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere that enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen. Auroral displays can appear in many vivid colours, that are a result of different gas particles colliding in the upper atmosphere.
3What is an Aurora Borealis?
- The most common aurora borealis colour is green, which is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth.
- Colours such as red, yellow, green, blue and violet are also seen occasionally. The rarer red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purple aurora. (source)
FUN FACT: Northern Lights are rarely seen from Southern Europe, but on the rare occasions that they appear, they are usually red, which can be terrifying for people unaware of its origin. A few weeks before the French Revolution the skies over England and Scotland turned red, so the lights were believed to be a bad omen.
When to see the Northern Lights?
THE BEST TIME OF THE YEAR
Auroras occur throughout the year, however you need dark skies to see them. So summer months render them invisible to the naked eye. If you are planning a Northern Lights hunt, you should definitely organize your trip during the rest of the year.
Probably the most popular period for Aurora hunting is from December to March, because those months bring long dark, but also pretty cold nights. However, the hunting begins as soon as the end of August, so September and October are good months as well, particularly for those of you who prefer to avoid the extreme cold. The colours can be absolutely astonishing in autumn, moreover, those are the only months when you might experience the Northern lights reflected in open water as well. A spectacular sight that doesn’t occur after the water freezes.
However, since Aurora is a naturally occurring phenomenon, it is hard to predict in advance. Much is dependent on solar winds, so you might count on a bit of luck for that.
Still, you can check the Aurora forecast on several websites like this.
- There is some speculation that the spring and autumn Equinoxes (around 20 March and 20 September) bring greater solar activity, which makes these days a potentially good time to go star-gazing in the North. (source)
4Auroras occur throughout the year, however you need dark skies to see them.
Where to see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights can be found in a band known as the “auroral zone” in the Northern hemisphere, which is a wider area around the magnetic pole. The closer you are to this region, the better your odds of catching the lights. So, the best Aurora Borealis can be seen from Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Northern Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland and Sweden.
- The lights are seen around the poles of both the northern and southern hemisphere. So Aurora Borealis are the lights occurring in the northern hemisphere, but there are also lights that occur in the southern hemisphere called Aurora Australis or southern lights.
- Scientists have learned that in most instances northern and southern auroras are mirror-like images that occur at the same time, with similar shapes and colours.
- With less landmass in the south, the southern lights are perhaps less talked about as they mostly occur over water, but they can be seen from Antarctica, and over parts of New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania.
- Astronauts on board of the International Space Station are at the same altitude as the auroras and see them from the side.
Top 5 Places to See the Northern Lights
1. Abisko, Sweden
Abisko in Sweden might be one of the best and most beautiful places in the world to experience the Northern Lights, and there are numerous guided tours plus the Aurora Sky Station to back it.
The best way to get there is by flying to Stockholm and then either taking a night train to Abisko or a flight to Kiruna, the nearest airport, and then a train to Abisko.
2. Tromso, Norway
Tromso is a known destination as well, although, in Norway the experience is quite unique as you can view the lights in different city centers and in the countryside as well.
There are directly flights to Tromso airport from the major European cities airport altought they are not so frequent. An alternative would be to flight trought Oslo.
3. Rovaniemi, Northern Finland
Another popular country for Aurora hunters is Finland, where you can join one of the many tours available and gaze at the sky from glass igloos and luxury suites, purposely built for this. The most popular place to see the Northern Lights in Finland is Rovaniemi.
In the past years, the airport of Rovaniemi has gained a lot of popularity thanks to the new routes operates by low-cost carriers. So it’s possible to reach it from all the major European Cities.
4. Reykjavik, Iceland
The lights are the main attraction that drove big tourism popularity in Iceland. The best Aurora spots inside the city tend to be along the coast, where you have a broad horizon without much sources of artificial light. The most popular viewing spot in Reykjavik is the Grotta island, popular both among locals and foreign visitors.
Iceland is well connected with many direct flights from both Italy and Germany, but you can also find low-cost options leaving from the UK.
5. Isle of Skye, Scotland
That is right! Although not as popular as the previous destinations, The Isle of Skye in Scotland is a beautiful city with clear skies, ideal for stargazing and catching the fascinating light show.
There are no direct flights connecting the Isle of Skye with the European Cities so the best solution is to have a stopover in London.
Find more information about booking cheaper flight tickets here!
Other popular spots to view the Northern Lights:Fairbanks, Alaska
5Once they appear, the show can last for a few minutes or all night
5 things to know if you plan on chasing the Northern Lights
1. They appear in many forms
Auroras come in many forms and shapes, from small patches of lights, to arcs, bands, pillars or shooting rays that light up the sky. Sometimes you’ll see them on the horizon looking like a curtain of light, other times they’ll be right above you, spreading in all directions over the night sky. Two people can look at the same Aurora but experience it very differently depending on where they’re standing.
2. They are better seen with the camera
Certainly, observing the Northern Lights is a truly breathtaking experience, however, if you’re planning to go Aurora hunting, you should know that the lights might not appear bright green like in photographs. The naked eye sees the lights more greyish, unless they are very very bright.
3. They are unpredictable: shows can last for a few minutes or all night
In order to see the Northern Lights you’ll need dark clear skies, but that is not the only key factor for them to be visible. Once they appear, the show can last for a few minutes or all night, depending on the magnitude of the incoming solar wind. So, when planning to see the Aurora, one of the most important things you should bring along is definitely patience. It will be worth it!
4. You can see them with the full moon
There is a common misconception that the Northern Lights are not visible when there is a full moon. This is actually not true, as a matter of fact, many photographers say they’ve taken some of their best photographs of the Aurora Borealis with the full moon illuminating the foreground and producing a much more interesting effect.
5. Hunting for Aurora Borealis
Are you planning to go Aurora hunting? Here’s what you need to know:
- Northern Lights, as we’ve already explained are influenced by the activity of the sun, which goes through a roughy 11-year cycle.
- Each solar cycle includes 3-4 years of solar maximum, which generates a lot of Northern Lights activity, accompanied by a couple of years of transition, and then 3-4 years of solar minimum.
- Solar activity will increase slowly, with a solar maximum expected in 2024/2025. Meanwhile, it is not possible yet to predict solar activity for the next years our suggestion is to take advantage and go hunting for Northern Lights as soon as possible!
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