As the cold weather begins to settle, layers of white frost cover the ground, and the skies over Europe darken for the winter season, an ethereal natural sight like no other, the Northern Lights, dances across the skies. A stunning weather phenomenon, the Northern Lights (or the Aurora Borealis) paint the skies with an ethereal palette of haunting greens, blues, pinks and oranges, smoothly billowing like glowing sails gliding across the sky. While the lights are visible in late summer the deep dark blue of a winter sky punctuated by the sparkle of immeasurable star constellations makes the sight of an aurora atop a silhouette of dramatic rural panoramas and dimly lit Arctic towns a uniquely pretty winter travel experience.
What Are The Northern Lights?
The activities that lead to an aurora begin with the sun, which is little more than a vast ball of super-hot gasses made up of Ions (a kind of electrically charged particle). These Ions blow away from the sun as a solar wind, that, when it meets Earth’s magnetic field, is blocked by the magnetosphere, causing some of the ions to become trapped in circular holding areas around Earth’s geomagnetic poles. The ions then collide with atoms of oxygen, helium and nitrogen, resulting in a powerful release of energy which we perceive as the stunning, throbbing undulation of light known as an aurora.
Auroras are generally consistent, with lighter auroras of green and yellow making up the bulk of sightings. But the distinct, deeply coloured and animated auroras that most travellers hope to see only happen when solar winds are at their strongest, a thing that only occurs when different parts of the sun go through periods of intense heating and cooling. The most extreme and rarest auroras happen when solar flares (bursts of energy ejected from sunspots, the coldest parts of the sun) happen. These sunspots give off sudden bursts of extreme energy in the solar wind, resulting in more pronounced auroras.
Where Is The Best Place To See The Northern Lights?
The Aurora Borealis is visible almost every night near the Arctic circle and across most of Iceland and parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Russia, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. That said, in mainland Europe there are few better places than Norway’s Tromsø, with its almost endless nights, to witness the dazzling display of colour. The city is perched on the island of Tromsøya connected to the mainland by an elegant arched bridge, and encircled by icy fjords and striking peaks that are white with snow year-round. Tromsø is a uniquely lively city from which to see the Aurora, with a busy student population and a vast collection of pubs to warm up in, and it makes a perfect starting point for Arctic expeditions. As the world’s northernmost settlement, Norway’s Svalbard is another good option, with 24-hour darkness between November and February — but as it’s polar bear territory, you should always travel with a guide.
Greenland’s minimal light pollution makes it an excellent place to see the Northern Lights: try the capital Nuuk or Sisimiut. Alternatively, Iceland’s Reykjavik makes an ideal base to explore the Aurora-laced skies, though the Westfjords are a better, more rural option, owing to less frequent cloud cover and lengthy periods of uninterrupted darkness.
When Is The Best Time Of The Year To See The Aurora Borealis?
The aurora season in the northern hemisphere is surprisingly long, stretching from the last few days of August to the last weeks of April. But strictly speaking, the long winter nights, when skies are at their darkest, are one of the best and most popular times for aurora travel. However, another option is to travel in September or March, which, statistically speaking, have lengthier periods of increased solar activity. This results in more extreme auroras, easily seen in dark sky destinations such as the rural countrysides of Norway and Sweden, and stunning Finish Lapland (tip: stay in Luosto in Central Lapland, where bells are rung whenever the Aurora makes an appearance, for maximum charm).
Between these times, no matter where or when you choose to travel, the best sightings happen around midnight, when the sky is at its blackest, but you’ll need a sufficiently clear sky with little to zero light pollution in order to see the phenomena at its best. Late summer travellers to north America can take advantage of increased solar flare activity by journeying to Canada’s southern territories or the vast rural expanses of Alaska.
Why Are The Northern Lights Different Colours?
The otherworldly colours — greens phasing into yellow, purple fringing ethereal oranges and whisp-like reds — associated with an aurora depend, for the most part, on the altitude and the types of atoms involved in its creation. If the Sun’s ions strike oxygen atoms high in the atmosphere, this will produce a striking red glow, an uncommon aurora, rarely witnessed. The most typical display of the aurora borealis: a softly moving green-yellow auroral hue — occurs as ions strike oxygen at lower altitudes, which is more common. Auroras with a defined purplish red and blue light in the lining, are produced by the Sun’s ions striking nitrogen atoms.
Another infrequent occurrence to look out for is when Ions strike both hydrogen and helium atoms at the same time resulting in exceptionally rare, well-defined blue, red and purple auroras, mostly (but not entirely) imperceptible to human eyes. The best time to see these rarer occurrences of red, yellow and pink aurora is when solar activity is at its highest, resulting in increased activity both higher and lower in the atmosphere.
The Northern Lights Are Unpredictable
A journey to see the Northern Lights is not always straightforward. To see an Aurora, the sky needs to be dark — very dark, but also exceptionally clear, with as little light pollution as possible. You already need to limit your travel time to between August and April, but to see the Aurora at its best, you also need to hope for (or plan for) solar flares, thereby limiting your travel time even further.
But for most travellers booking in advance, this level of planning isn’t always possible, rendering whether you see the Aurora Borealis an uncommonly unpredictable event that can leave travellers feeling disappointed. However, those living within a short distance of Norway’s Tromsø or Finland’s Lapland, who are willing to book last minute, can utilise helpful Aurora weather forecasts, but even then, clear nights aren’t always guaranteed.
Don’t Go For The Northern Lights, Go For The Destination
While the extraordinary sight of an Aurora is an incredible addition to any trip, the destinations where they’re visible are exceptional. Some are mountainous topographies giving way to long fjords, while others are attractive arctic towns trickling down rugged hills towards crystal clear seas, appearing as little more than distant autumnal embers when viewed from afar, ideal for all kinds of winter adventure. And while to some extent, it’s possible to time your trip to offer the best chance of witnessing an aurora, unexpected storms, less-than-ideal viewing conditions, and sometimes just simple bad timing can mean you won’t see an aurora.
With this in mind, we believe it’s better to travel for the destination, not for the Northern Lights. Travel to Norway’s cinematic fjords, embark on glacier hiking adventures in Iceland and go mushing with huskies in Finland, all, with some luck, with an aurora as a backdrop. And if you really want to see the Northern Lights, give yourself a head start and arrange Aurora hunting expeditions into the wilderness (away from the light pollution of the towns and cities) and stay a few nights in Aurora hotels such as Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in the Finnish Arctic, and the Pinetree Lodge in the Swedish Boreal forest.