Your Complete Guide to Northern Lights: Where, When, How

Northern lights (a.k.a. aurora borealis) is a natural phenomenon which is hard to predict. The truth is, aurora hunting depends on luck and there is no simple answer to your aurora hunting quest. There are however, a few factors to consider to help you improve your chances, which is what this guide aims to do.

Best Places to See Northern Lights

There is a myth that the farther north you go the better. While there is some degree of truth to this, in reality aurora activities are shaped more like an oval belt and it has been moving southwards over the years.

Map of Aurora Belt[Image Credit: University of Alaska Fairbanks]

When the aurora activity is exceptionally high, Northern Lights sightings have even been reported in Scotland, Denmark and Germany! You can check the daily aurora forecast to pick a strategic location. For Norway, you can also use the following daily aurora forecast.

Nonetheless, to maximise your chance, it’s good to stick with the traditional aurora hunting grounds where aurora spotting is realistic even during normal-to-low aurora activities:

  • Alaska: Anchorage, Barrow, Bettles, Denali, Fairbanks, Fort Yukon, Prudhoe Bay
  • Canada: Calgary, Dawson City, Fort McMurray, Fort Nelson, Gillam, Lake Athapapuskow Manitoba, Pangnirtung, Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Yukon
  • Finland: Inari, Ivalo, Kakslauttanen, Luosto, Nellim, Nuorgam, Rovaniemi, Saariselkä, Utsjoki
  • Greenland: Ammassalik, Isortoq, Kangerlussuaq, Kulusuk, Kuummiut, Sermiligaaq, Tasiilaq, Tiniteqilaaq
  • Iceland: Akureyri, Grimsey, Hvalfjörður, Ísafjörður, Þingvellir National Park, Reykjavik, Snæfellsnes, Vatnajokull
  • Norway: Alta, Andøya, Bødø, Finnmark, Hammerfest, Harstad, Karasjok, Kirkenes, Kjollefjord, Lakselv, Lofoten Islands, Narvik, Nordkapp, Skibotn, Svalbard, Tana Bru, Tromsø, Vardø
  • Russia: Murmansk, Salekhard, Severodvinsk
  • Sweden: Abisko, Björkliden, Jukkasjärvi, Kiruna, Luleå, Tornedalen

Additional tips:

  • During my research, Abisko (Sweden) particularly stood out for being a location with statistically the most nights of clear skies in Europe. Its location right in the middle of the aurora belt also means that you can spot the Northern Lights during low activity.
  • Tromsø (Norway) is arguably the most visited out of all the Northern Light cities, mainly due to its accessibility (2-hour flight from Oslo) and a wide amount of side activities they offer. It’s also located right in the middle of the aurora belt and has good road connectivity to other parts of Norway, making it ideal to take tours with experienced aurora hunters who can help you find the right opening for dark, clear, unobstructed skies.
  • Lofoten Islands (Norway) have incredibly breathtaking landscape with mountains rising steeply from fjords. The weather is notoriously uncooperative, but when you do get clear skies, it’s arguably the most scenic place for aurora watching. I was incredibly lucky to catch one here.
  • Last but not least, choose a place because you actually want to go there. Aurora hunting is ultimately a game of luck, and it gets really frustrating going all the way to a place just for the aurora yet it doesn’t appear. Go for the activities, go for the attractions, keep yourself entertained so that you won’t be sorely disappointed with your holiday if the aurora doesn’t show up.

Best Time to See Northern Lights

1. Picking the right month for aurora hunting:

Aurora sighting is possible between September and March:

  • September and October bring warmer autumn weather, making it more palatable for those who can’t take extreme Arctic winter. As lakes and rivers are also ice-free, it’s possible to catch the dazzling colors of aurora reflected beautifully in water. The weather gets gradually cloudier as it approaches the end of autumn.
  • From November to January, the Arctic experiences its coldest winter period. Frequent snow brings cloudy nights which may block aurora sightings. However, long dark nights increase the amount of time and likelihood you may spot the aurora. Some places may even experience polar nights where there’s virtually no sun 24/7!
  • February and March sees the weather improving with less snow clouds blocking the Northern Lights, but as the daylight hours have increased, you may have to wait until late nights for aurora sightings.

Technically speaking, the equinox months of September and March have the highest level of solar activity. With relatively less clouds, these are also the best months to go in terms of weather.

From April to August, the skies are not dark enough and aurora sightings are not possible with naked eyes.

2. Picking the right hour for aurora hunting:

Aurora spotting is possible anytime between the nighttime of 6 pm and 4 am. However, if the aurora activity is low, you may need to wait until the night is pitch black to spot it. Optimally, the period between 10 pm until 1 am is the best hour for aurora hunting.

Dark, Clear, Unobstructed Skies

Aurora activity occurs frequently in places under the aurora belt, yet many people failed. Why? These are the most important factors affecting your success rate:

1. No clouds allowed. Northern Lights appear very high up in the atmosphere, which means that you cannot see them if the clouds are blocking. Do check the weather forecast to help you pick the right place at the right time. In general, coastal areas tend to be warmer but cloudier, so you may want to head inland to maximize your chance.

2. Light pollution is your enemy. Picking the right base is only half the battle. Chances are… your base city is decently lit, and since most aurora activity is quite faint, you actually have to go far, far away from any source of light before you can spot the Green Lady. Besides, city lights cast an ugly orange color which don’t make for good photos.

3. The more space, the better. Dramatic mountains and objects make for awesome dynamic. But seeing as sometimes aurora can appear low in the horizon, you don’t want them to block your view, so move far enough to allow breathing space for the sky to interact with these objects.

Nobody told us that aurora hunting is hard work, eh? I had to hike almost 2 hours from Reine in Lofoten Islands, experimenting with different places before I discover the right opening for aurora to shine through in Hamnøy.

Hamnøy, Norway

Totally worth it, though.

11-Year Solar Cycle: Is 2016 Your Last Chance?

The solar storm activity, which in effect causes aurora to occur, changes every 11 years. After the sun past its peak, the number of solar flares and electrons produced will begin to wane until the next cycle begins.

The auroras won’t disappear completely, but the frequency will be less and the activities likely to be weaker. Nonetheless, large solar flares may still occur. For instance, there was a peak in 2001, but large solar flares with good aurora displays still occurred in October 2003 and September 2005.

In a nutshell… no, it’s never too late to see aurora.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Don’t go home empty handed! I have written a comprehensive post detailing how to photograph the Northern Lights for beginners. Yep, right! You don’t need to be a professional photographer as long as you follow my guide. =)

A few final tips:

  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It’s good to stay at least 3 nights in the aurora zone.
  • As the aurora display can sometimes be quite faint, you might mistake it as “white clouds” in the beginning. Try to shoot a photo of it with long exposure technique anyway, you might get lucky! If it really is aurora, then go find a really, really dark spot and you might actually get to see the famed “green” aurora.

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Have you ever seen the Northern Lights before?

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