How to see the Northern lights
How to see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are one of the most (if not the most) amazing natural spectacles on Earth. For many travellers around the world, they are the ultimate quest in the bucket list. I’m one of those travellers and throughout the years I’ve tried to see the Northern Lights several times, some of them successful but some others not at all. This is why I decided to write this blog post to share some tips about how to see the Northern Lights.
First of all, it’s important to understand that there is no magical formula to see the Northern Lights. But there are some factors that when combined with a sparkle of luck, will maximise your chances to be successful in your chase.
I will share some information and tips to try to see the Northern Lights, but please be aware that it depends on a combination of factors:
– Location (select a place located in the Auroras band)
– Time of the year (from September to early April)
– KP Index (this is like a forecast of the auroras intensity)
– Weather (you will need clear skies to spot the auroras)
– Dark place to see the auroras (away from cities or artificial lights)
– Hour (usually auroras are spotted from 9pm to 3am)
– Consider joining a Northern Lights tour (usually tour guides know the best places to see them)
– A sparkle of luck
Because some of those factors like the weather or KP Index are not possible to predict in advance, try to book your trip planning some other activities that are not related to the Northern Lights.
Most of the Arctic Circle locations that I mention in this blog post offer amazing activities that you can only find in those latitudes and you will have a blast. From snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross country skiing, sightseeing, reindeer or husky safaris to snowshoeing, you will have plenty of things to do while not chasing the auroras.
I’ve been lucky enough to see great aurora displays in places like Tromso in Norway or in the Finnish Lapland, but I also had amazing Winter trips to Iceland or Kiruna in Sweden where I hardly saw them. But I always had amazing vacation experiences. Because I tried to make the most of those unique places, and not to focus only in the Northern Lights chase. Even if that was the ultimate goal.
What are the Northern Lights?
There are no words to describe the magic of seeing the aurora borealis, aka Northern Lights. But what are the Northern Lights? I will try to explain in a very simple way a highly complex scientific process.
This natural phenomenon is caused by charged particles coming from the sun that gets trapped when entering the atmosphere in Earth’s magnetic fields. This causes an otherworldly spectacle of colourful lights dancing bright up in the sky.
When I researched about the topic, I read that the sun follows 11 year cycles of activity. In the last few years we had been facing a cycle of low intensity. The good news is that it seems there will be a solar maximum with the peak expected between 2023 and 2026.
Experts say the next years will be great to see strong Northern Lights displays and I hope they are right. So maybe this is the right time to start planning next season aurora hunt!
Which colours are the Northern Lights?
The most common colour for auroras is green, but occasionally they can be displayed in other colours like blue, red, purple of even pink. It depends on the composition and density of the atmosphere, as well as the altitude of the collision when the sun particles reach Earth atmosphere.
It’s important to take in consideration that when captured in a camera, auroras look much brighter than with our human eyes. This happens because cameras have a different sensitivity to the lights.
When the Northern Lights are not strong, our eyes might see only a greyish aurora that can be easily spotted as a cloud. But in your camera, you will see them in a more vivid green tone.
What are the best locations to see the Northern Lights?
The auroras can be seen in polar latitudes, usually in a band between 66N and 69N in the Arctic Circle across several countries.
There are many locations where Northern Lights are visible in those latitudes. Some of the most known places to see them are:
– Norway – Tromso, Alta, Lofoten Islands, Senja or Svalbard
– Sweden – Kiruna, Abisko
– Finland – Rovaniemi, Levi, Saariselka, Ivalo
– Canada – Yellowknife, Churchill, Yukon, Nunavat, Newfoundland
– USA – Alaska
If the lights are strong enough you can even see them below those latitudes. There are registers of aurora displays for example in Denmark or Scotland. But that doesn’t happen often.
Be aware that the auroras also appear in the Southern Hemisphere, being known as the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis. That is a similar phenomenon, the reason why it’s not as known as the Northern Lights it’s because it occurs the most over Antarctica, which is not an inhabited region.
Where to see the Northern Lights?
The darkest the place you are, the best chances you have to see the auroras. So go out of the cities or places with artificial lights.
Dark forests, beaches, river or lake shores with no lights are usually great places to spot them. If you are lucky enough to see the Northern Light near a surface water, you will have the plus of the amazing display reflected in the water.
When to see the Northern Lights?
The aurora season goes from September to early April, so you have many opportunities to spot them in half of the year. The Northern Lights are seen in polar latitudes, which means that depending on when you go chase them, you can have completely different experiences.
If you go from September to November, you will have more daylight and most likely Autumn landscapes to admire.
From December to January you will experience magical white snowy landscapes and polar nights. This means you can have up to 24 hours of night. In some places there are one or two hours of light, but it’s always a characteristic pale blueish light, not the daylight we are used to. That’s one of my favourite times of the year to chase the Northern Lights because it’s a completely different and magical experience. Plus you have more night hours, so your chances of seeing the auroras are higher. But it also snows quite a lot, so you might have to deal with some cloudy nights when auroras are not visible.
From February to April days start becoming longer, so you will have more daylight to enjoy the Arctic amazing landscapes. The weather is still quite cold in those months and it can also snow significantly. You still have many hours to see the auroras, even because they are usually more active from 9pm to 3am.
It is said that the best periods to see the Northern Lights are closer to Autumn and Spring Equinoxes (September and March), because the solar activity is potentially higher in those months. Some of the strongest aurora displays have been seen around those periods. So maybe it’s worth to try and schedule your Northern Lights chase around September or March Equinoxes.
What are the ideal weather conditions to see the Northern Lights?
To see the auroras display in the horizon, one of the most important things is to have clear skies. If the weather is overcast or snowy (which is very common in the Arctic Circle during Winter time), your chances to see them will be quite reduced. Nevertheless, if the weather is windy you might be lucky as the wind can take the clouds away bringing the possibility to spot the auroras.
If you are chasing the Northern Lights and the weather prediction is cloudy, you should anyway give it a try because sometimes it’s possible to see them even with some clouds in the sky. Additionally, the weather in those latitudes is quite unpredictable and can change very fast. So you never know what the future night holds you.
It is also said that new moon nights are better to chase auroras because they are darker, but I’ve seen beautiful pictures of the auroras with full moon.
What is the KP Index to track the Northern Lights?
Another VERY important thing to be able to see the Northern Lights is the KP Index. This is like a forecast to track the auroras intensity, and basically it measures the solar activity that allows Northern Lights to be visible.
In a more scientific explanation, the KP Index measures the disturbance of Earth magnetic filter caused by solar winds. It ranges from 0 (inexistent activity) to 9 (which is very rare and means an intense geomagnetic storm is on its way).
There are several apps to track the KP Index that are key to use to help you in your aurora chase. They work like almost like a weather forecast and they tell you the expected KP for the following days, the viewing probability in a specific time and the cloud coverage.
Don’t get disappointed if the forecast is not the best when you are planning to chase the Northern Lights. To see them it’s required the combination of factors that I’ve mentioned before. Meaning that you can have a beautiful display with a KP Index of 2 or 3 if the skies are clear (it happened to me several times). And you can have a KP Index of 5 and not being able to see anything because the weather is overcast or snowy (it also happened to me and I can just tell you it’s extremely frustrating).
But when the activity level is strong combined with proper weather conditions, just go out and wait. You are probably about to see the most stunning natural spectacle in the world.
How long should I stay in my destination to see the Northern Lights?
That’s a very good question and the answer is very simple: the longer you stay, the more chances you have to see them.
I recommend to plan at least 4 to 5 nights to maximize the opportunities to see the Northern Lights. You might have to deal with cloudy or snowy nights and with low KP Index, so you will want to have some extra nights to find your sweet spot.
How to find the Northern Lights?
If you are in the Aurora band area with all the above factors combined, you have great chances of seeing the Northern Lights. But even with all those conditions, be aware that the auroras do not appear all night long. Usually they are seen for periods of a few minutes to hours (more rarely) from 9pm to 3am. So be patient and ready to wait.
You can either go and chase them by yourself driving to specific locations with darkness conditions, or you can join a Northern Lights tour with a local company. This might be a very good solution because the guides usually know the best places to spot them. There are many tours available combining the aurora hunt with other fun activities: snowmobiling, reindeer or husky aurora safaris, snowshoeing walking, aurora camps in specific locations or others.
Additionally, you can choose to stay in a dedicated Northern Lights resort. There are many options to choose from in the different locations I’ve mentioned. They are usually located in dark areas and they shut down the lights at night to increase aurora visibility. Many of them also have an aurora alert system, meaning that when the Northern Lights are visible, you receive a notification to go out of your cabin and admire the sky.
I’ve stayed recently in Northern Lights Village in the Finnish Lapland and I didn’t have to leave the resort to see amazing auroras. It was a great and fun experience. After dinner I was seated in the bar having a drink and waiting for the auroras, when suddenly someone from the staff came to say they just spotted the Northern Lights. Everybody in the bar ran to the dark and freezing forest to be amazed by the most beautiful natural spectacle on Earth.
How to dress to see the Northern Lights?
Because most likely you will have face the dark Arctic nights outside for a few hours with very cold weather (I experienced -27 Celsius once in Levi in Lapland), proper clothes are mandatory.
Wear warm clothes, with several layers of thermals, a good jacket proper to extreme cold temperatures, waterproof and warm boots, a scarf, thermal gloves and a cap.
Many tour companies can provide you thermal outfits that will make your experience much easier.
It’s also a very good idea to bring with you some food and hot beverages to help you face the cold. If you join an organised tour, food and drinks will most likely also be provided.
How to capture the Northern Lights in a camera?
Be aware that the Northern Lights in a camera will look much brighter than with human eyes. Because the cameras are much more sensible to the lights. Quite often your eyes will only see a greyish aurora that can be easily spotted as a cloud, but in your camera you will see it much more vivid and green.
Try to have a good camera to capture that unforgettable moment that you’ve been waiting for so long. And know how to use your camera ahead. From several researches I’ve done you should:
– Use manual focus, ISO between 800-3200
– Shutter speed 2-30 seconds
– Aperture between f1.4-f4
You can also capture the Northern Lights if your mobile has a good camera. Mobile phone cameras are getting much better, but still if you have the chance of using a professional camera I believe the pictures will be better.
Actually one of the reasons why joining a Northern Lights tour is also a very good idea, is because you will have a guide with a professional camera who knows how to capture the lights properly. There are even specific photography aurora borealis tours where you will learn how to photograph them.
And that’s it! With all this information I hope to encourage to go and see the Northern Lights, by giving you the right tools to maximize your chances to be successful.
And with the prediction of a new solar cycle with strong auroras display starting already in 2023, who knows? Maybe this is the right time to start planning your Northern Lights chase! Good luck!