Beautiful glowing lights in the night sky - smudging streaks of colour, snaking along underneath the stars... What are the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon taking place in the dark skies of the polar regions, around the winter months - approximately October to March in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern hemisphere experiences the same phenomenon in the Antarctic regions, visible at the opposite time of year but less accessible.
The proper name for this incredible phenomenon is Aurora Borealis or Aurora Australis for the Aurora in the Southern hemisphere. It takes place around the winter months because that is when the skies become dark enough to see them.
Because of the latitude of the polar regions, the sun doesn't really set in the summer, and doesn't really rise in winter. In the peak of summer the sun never sets in places above the arctic circle, and when it eventually does set the darkest hours are merely twilight. Hence the reason you can't see the lights until the winter when the darkness sets in.
The Northern Lights are caused by solar flares from the sun. Particles from significant flares are sometimes pulled into the Earth's atmosphere by our magnetic field and as this is centred at the poles, the particles enter the atmosphere around these points. The lights are caused by the electric particles reacting in various gasses in layers of the atmosphere. The various colours of the Northern lights depends on which layer of the atmosphere they are reacting with.
Green is the most common Aurora, along with white, then red. They can also be yellow, pink or turquoise in colour.
Best Places to Find the Northern LightsThe Arctic has a much more forgiving climate than the Antarctic (although still harsh and unpredictable) and it has much more land, settlement and development, therefore we will focus on places in the Northern polar region. That said, you may be able to see the 'Southern Lights' in the Southern Hemisphere from the South of New Zealand's South Island, South Australia and Southern Patagonia in South America (Argentina and Chile).
In the Northern Hemisphere's polar region (The Arctic) You can commonly see the Northern Lights in the areas around the Arctic circle, and a few hundred miles South of it. You can see the Northern lights in the following countries - some more accessible than others:
CanadaMore expensive to fly to from the UK, but not as expensive as Scandinavia once you're there. Spectacular lakes and scenery. Very cold, usually dry atmosphere (less damp).
Alaska (U.S.)Again, more expensive flights, but cheaper than Scandinavia for hotels, trips and general economy. Very cold, usually dry atmosphere (less damp).
SwedenThe Northern half of Sweden is the place for the Northern Lights, especially Lappland. Cheap flights to Stockholm from the UK and trains and flights to the North are not too expensive. Typically expensive Scandinavian economy, but high standard of living. Some good places with less likely cloud cover - such as Abisko, see below in the 'Where I have Seen the Northern Lights' section.
Unspoilt landscape with hundreds of lakes, rivers and forests. Very cold, usually dry atmosphere (less damp).
NorwayAgain, you need to go North to see the lights, preferably above Trondheim. Cheap flights to Oslo from the UK and train and flight infrastructure within Norways is good. Norway's budget airline Norwegian Air is good for getting to the North. Typically expensive Scandinavian economy, but high standard of living. Norway has a slightly worse exchange rate than Sweden and is more expensive for car hire. Spectacular mountains and fjords, but beware of more likely cloud cover. Not quite as harshly cold as some of the other countries due to the long coastline and proximity to the sea.
For more information on Arctic Sweden and Norway, visit my Arctic Scandinavia Article
FinlandSome cheap flights to Helsinki from the UK and trains and flights to the North are easy enough to arrange. Typically expensive Scandinavian economy, but high standard of living. Some good places with less likely cloud cover. Beautiful lakes and trees, as well as wildlife. Very cold, usually dry atmosphere (less damp).
IcelandCheap flights to Reykjavik from the UK and flights to the North are not too expensive. Iceland has a budget airline called Iceland Express. Typically expensive Scandinavian economy, but high standard of living. A surprisingly mild climate due to the Gulf Stream which also keeps the UK mild. Unspoilt scenery reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, fascinating geysers and volcanic activity including geothermal pools for swimming (e.g. the Blue Lagoon). Very changeable weather, often more damp nearer the coastline. Much colder in the interior.
For more information on Iceland visit my Iceland article
RussiaHarder to access, not such as great infrastructure in the North. Off the beaten path appeal, but areas like Siberia are very wild and untouched to the point of inhospitality. Very harsh climate.
GreenlandVery hard to access in the winter months. Very harsh climate. Usually only organised tours.
Faroe Islands (Denmark)South of Iceland, North of Shetland Islands. Very changeable weather, often damp and snow is not around for long.
It is also possible to see the Northern Lights from the North of Scotland, especially the Shetland Islands. Wherever you go, the Northern Lights are generally brighter and more directly above you in the sky the further North you go.
Best Conditions for Seeing the Northern LightsCrisp, cold nights - the coldest nights with the most 'crisp' air are the ones which appear to make the Northern Lights more likely. This may be because there is less mist or cloud on nights like these, but either way, a night like this is a good night for the Aurora.
Clear sky - cloud cover makes the Northern Lights nearly impossible to see. I have personally seen them from beneath a thick cloud but it has to be very bright for that to even be possible. Also, although it is still unsusal, it's not nearly as impressive.
To see the bright colours, streaky patterns and ethereal movement of the Aurora you need to see as much clear sky as possible.
New moon (no moon) - The moonlight drowns out or 'dilutes' the Northern Lights as it reduces the darkness in the sky (and therefore the contrast). Avoid a full moon and if possible go when there is a new moon. I have seen the Northern lights with a full moon hiding behind a mountain, which helped, but without any strong moonlight at all, the Northern Lights will be much stronger. If it is a full moon, the good thing is that you'll be able to see the landscape and scenery alot better in the 'polar night' (the name for the seemingly endless dark twilight which prolongs throughout the day in the Arctic winter).
Dark sky - Avoid city lights or street lights of any kind as they also drown out the Northern Lights. The good thing is that in the Arctic, outside major cities, there is rarely too much civilization, so the dull orange glow that we are so familiar with here in the UK is easily avoided by driving out into any sort of wilderness. Organised Northern Lights tours usually get away from cities and towns for this reason.
Hours around midnight - These hours are the most likely for seeing the Northern Lights because the 'Aurora belt' passes over the
11-year cycle - The solar flares (which are responsible for making the Northern Lights happen) reach a peak every 11 or so years. This peak is predicted around 2013 so we are coming up to it this winter! This means the Northern Lights should take place more often, more brightly, and they may be seen in more places (i.e. further South, even as far as England).
|Full moon and clouds - this doesn't bode well for a sighting of the Northern Lights!|
Where I have seen the Northern Lights!
Abisko National Park, Lappland, SwedenSome places are more likely to experience cloud cover due to mountains, sea and general geographic reasons. A place called Abisko in Sweden lies in a 'rain shadow' meaning that the surrounding mountains catch the rain clouds, often leaving clear skies in the flat expanse near the wide frozen river. This is an excellent place for good chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
The Abisko village (Part of the Bjorkliden area) has a tourist station and coffee shop/restaurant at the top of one of the mountains, with a cable car ride to the top (including hire of Arctic jumpsuits and boots, and an Aurora talk in the information and display room). There is also great accommodation options - cabins and hostels, at the 'Turiststation'
For nearby accommodation, Northern lights info, and skiing info visit the Bjorkliden website
Iceland - Golden CircleWhen the moon is full, it can drown out the Northern Lights, and if they are not very strong, you won't see them. The low mountains in Iceland around the Reykjavik area are good for hiding the moon but still allowing a good view of the sky (when the moon is low).
I saw the Northern Lights in exactly this way the first time I saw them. I was worried the full moon would be a problem for viewing the lights, but it was meant to be. A low mountain hid the moon from view and sure enough Richard and I caught sight of the lights in the rear-view mirror of the car as we were driving along towards Thingvellir from Geysir (on the Golden Circle tourist trail an hour or so outside Reykjavik).
For my story about the first time I saw the Northern Lights, see this blog post
Bardufoss, Norway - near the Snowman Ski Resort at MalselvHigher up on the mountainside, driving the E8 - also signposted as the 'Northern Lights Route' we pulled over as soon as I announced to my friends 'there it is!' after just having been in the car about half an hour. The green stripe spread across the sky and very soon we were watching in awe as the bright shapes were spreading and swirling directly overhead!
Above all, remember a sighting of the Northern Lights cannot be scheduled or guarranteed - that is a big part of the magic! Make sure you have other things to look forward to on your winter holiday, such as husky sledding, skiing, reindeer trips, etc, and the Northern Lights may or may not show, just wait and see...!
Text, Images and Videos Copyright © Lise Griffiths, 2012
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