The Fact-Based & Complete Guide to the Northern Lights (& why you shouldn't believe everything you read about where to see them)!
The Northern Lights are a spectacle of nature I have long been fascinated with (along with millions of other people throughout time). The are incredibly mysterious and almost eerie to see as ribbons of color dance through the dark sky silently (did you know they actually make noise, we just cant hear it?).
But so many people just run to Norway or somewhere in Canada and hope for the best. Although you may get lucky and be at the right place at the time, if you know a little more about them and how to get a better idea of when they show will happen, you'll have a much more educated way of choosing your spot to watch.
What They Actually Are & Why They're Different Colors
Very simply (stay with me, it's actually interesting) the Auroras are the result of electrons and protons blasting through space from the sun and colliding with gasses in the Earths Atmosphere. This is also why they are different colors, because they are colliding with different gasses at different altitudes. For example, the greens tend to be from Oxygen about 60-ish miles up in the atmosphere. Purples and blues tend to be from Nitrogen, and the rare, all-red is the result of HIGH-ALTITUDE Oxygen collisions. Super cool, right?
Where Worlds Collide
The Auroras form and move in an oval pattern (the Aurora Oval) at about the 70 degree latitude mark around the poles like a donut-shape, sometimes leaving the center of the oval, empty (This is important, stick with me...). This is why you don't want to just go anywhere "up north" or "down south," so it's all about
Location, Location, Location.
Svalbard, Norway is statistically (based on hard data and facts found by the Tromsø Geophysical Institute) the best place in Europe to view the Northern Lights BUT remember how I said there are places that can be TOO far north? This is true here. How can it be both? Svalbard is actually so far north that it's in the "donut hole" and like a wild relationship, is great when it's good and terrible when it's not. You could see them blazing at midday or be cloaked in cloud cover for weeks. As you move closer to the magnetic poles, these things also come into account:
- Weather: The further north you go, the more likely you are to have severe weather that causes cloud cover, storms, etc. where visibility becomes limited to impossible. Winter is the cloudiest season in Scandinavia and ALSO the most active for the Auroras.
- A strong "donut" & a weak "donut hole:" When there are flickers of auroras, they tend show up in a weak little sheet over the pole entirely, but as they strengthen and those protons and electrons start getting all hot and turned on, they get incredibly intense and circle around that 70 degree line again, leaving the poles more empty.
- Light Pollution: Many towns that have good Aurora activity are near large cities or towns where they get washed out by light. You must then go outside the cities to find the dark again.
- Heat-Created Cloud Cover: In the coldest months, clouds form over anything warmer than them. This could be rivers or even towns themselves. Go outside the towns to more desolate areas.
Many destinations that are touted or marketed as "The Best Place to See the Northern Lights" may have their days in the spotlight, but statistically are just..not. Most of us don't live in these places that see activity, so it's ok if a day goes by without them or they aren't as spectacular one day. But for those of us who travel to these places, we want the best chance...based on hard facts and not marketing claims.
Enough Science...How do I See Them?
- Go Inland: Based on data from the Tromsø Geophysical Institute (where the leading studies on the Auroras come from), crystal clear nights are very far and few between along the coast, where cloud cover is common at the same time as the peak Aurora activity.
- Go Wild: If you can't head to a national park or take a tour that will take you outside the cities, you can compromise of course and stay close, but know you will have light pollution. Many Aurora chasers will head to northern Finnish National Parks for dark, awesome viewing.
- Go In Winter: Peak months are September to late March, but can absolutely be seen August and April too. You want cold, dark, and clear!
Northern Scandinavia & Iceland are the Most Popular...but Not the Only Places to See Them! Here are hot spots where the electrons and protons know how to get seriously turned on!
- Karigasniemi, Finland
- Karasjok, Finland
- Inari, Finland
- Svalbard, Norway
- Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland (weather CAN be tricky here, so watch for clouds!)
- Tromsø, Norway (View them on a nighttime steam ship!)
- Abisko, Sweden (How about from the Ice Hotel?)
- Kakslauttanen, Finland (Try it from the clear-roofed igloo hotel!)
- Fairbanks, Alaska
- Yellowknife, Canada (stick to WESTERN Canada)
- New Zealand (yes...the whole country)
- Antarctica (Inaccessible for most and weather can be a huge issue but they are there!)
But what about Russia? Or Eastern Canada? They're super far north! Russia in particular tends to be very difficult to access and lacks the tourism and infrastructure for trips that far north or to the Siberian wilderness. Again, weather can be tricky here, too. Eastern Canada also tends to have heavy cloud cover, so you just have to be more...lucky.
Keep an Eye on the Forecast!
So, you have a few wonderful options! Just be sure to go into a tour or trip armed with the knowledge that not all marketing claims ring true. Although they MAY, and probably do, have spectacular nights in plenty more cities than what I listed, these are ones that are statistically-backed with the highest amount of consistent activity, clear nights, and accessibility.
have another favorite place you've been and seen them? I actually have too! Denali national Park! Let me know yours in the comment below!
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