A Complete Guide To Nature’s Light Show

A Complete Guide To Nature’s Light Show


More often than not, the aurora borealis (also known as the northern lights) appears as a pale streak of light almost indistinguishable from a cloud. But sometimes, it spreads and intensifies into something very special indeed.

That’s the joy and frustration of hunting for the northern lights—an atmospheric phenomenon where energized solar particles bombard our atmosphere causing waves of colored lights.

The uncertainty of getting a glimpse of the natural phenomenon doesn’t put people off trying though. Far from it.

Tourism boom for the northern lights

In the 1980s, Japanese tourists began to travel to Alaska to see the northern lights, something that surprised and mystified many locals. Aurora borealis tourism has since gone on to become popular in northern destinations around the world.

2019 analysis from Visit Norway revelaed “northern lights” was the third most travel-related search term used by people researching trips to Norway behind only fjords and glaciers. More people searched for information on the aurora borealis in Norway than cruises, hiking, skiing and camping.

Widespread coverage of the expected solar maximum in the coming years is sure to only increase interest in northern lights tours and cruises.

What causes the aurora?

Auroras are caused by our Sun and the solar wind that brings charged particles towards the Earth. Our atmosphere—specifically the magnetic field—protects us from these particles.

The electrons travel along the magnetic field towards the poles, where the electrons meet hydrogen and oxygen. The resulting reactions cause a release of energy, which we perceive as light. This happens at both poles: the northern lights or aurora borealis in the north, and the southern lights or aurora australis in the south.

A recent scientific study proved that these electrons ride along on Alfvén waves, which accelerate them to a sufficient rate to cause auroras. It’s the space weather equivalent of a surfer catching a big wave.

What does the aurora look like?

You may have seen sensational photography of the northern lights and thought, ‘do they really look like that?’ The answer is it depends. As a natural phenomenon, there is substantial variation between auroras.

Pale light may appear as an arc, or it may be a much more intense color and appear as rays or the famous curtain-like effect. It can also behave in curious ways, from being almost completely still to pulsing or even leaping around. What you see depends in part on your location. The exact same aurora will look very different from different latitudes, for example.

As for the different colors, they are caused by the intensity of the electron bombardment, which elements are being struck in our atmosphere, and the altitude of the reaction. Green—ranging from pale to vivid—is the most common color.

How to see the northern lights

There is plenty of universal advice for people wanting to experience a spectacular aurora borealis display. But while following this advice will increase your chances, it can never guarantee success.

First and foremost, you should be as close as possible to the aurora oval in the northern hemisphere. This donut-shaped ring around the Arctic gets bigger and moves southwards with stronger displays, but it’s most commonly located over the northern parts of Scandinavia, Alaska and the north of Canada.

Next, it must be dark, so sometime within September to April is essential. As the darkest months, December and January may seem ideal, but that time of year often brings with it the worst weather. Cloudy skies will ruin any hope you have of a sighting no matter the aurora’s strength. For this reason, late September to early November and February to early March are considered prime time for aurora hunting.

Finally, being away from the artificial lights of a city will increase your chances of seeing a weaker display.

Forecasting the northern lights

Space weather forecasting has improved significantly in recent years and thanks to the smartphone, virtually everyone has access to the same aurora forecasting information used by pro tour guides.

The Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks has excellent broad forecasting to give you an idea of what to expect on a given evening. It uses the Kp scale to forecast the aurora strength. A Kp of 1 or 2 is considered weak but may still be visible in the far north. A Kp of 3 or above means the chances of a dramatic display are substantially higher, and the lights should be visible from farther south.

For more real-time data, download one of the many aurora forecasting apps. They will give a 15-30 minute warning of strong activity in your current location. While not perfect, they are a handy tool to have at your disposal.

The best aurora borealis destinations

While heading as far north as you can is important, latitude alone isn’t the only consideration in selecting a good spot. Weather is just as important, particularly cloud cover. Many northern lights tours based in coastal parts of Norway actually travel for hours inland in order to find clear skies, sometimes even crossing the border into Sweden or Finland.

Another important consideration is what else there is to do in the area. Travel to remote parts of north America or Scandinavia have one thing in common: it’s expensive. That means you’ll want to make the most of the daytimes when the skies are not dark to get full value from your trip.

Alaska: The lack of urban areas in Alaska means much of the state has ideal conditions for viewing the aurora. Many northern lights tour companies are based in Fairbanks, an ideal place for first-timers given its northern latitude and the other things to do in the city.

The adventurous may want to consider heading even farther north to Coldfoot or Wiseman. By day you can indulge in winter activities such as snowshoeing and dog mushing, while at night you’ll regularly enjoy some of the world’s best conditions for seeing the aurora.

Canada: Churchill, Manitoba, offers the opportunity to see another of nature’s wonders, the polar bear. Thirty minutes from Churchill, the Northern Studies Center is a great spot for seeking the lights as it offers clearer, wider skies than in the town itself.

Although farther south, Alberta’s Elk Island National Park and Jasper National Park are both designated dark sky reserves. The adventurous might like to consider heading to Yukon, with Whitehorse and Dawson City good options.

Iceland: Although the volcanic island has a good reputation for aurora sightings, it’s actually a little farther south than the ideal latitude. However, with so much to see and do in Iceland it remains a good option if you are prepared to stay a little longer to increase your chances of a sighting.

Norway: Tromsø and Alta compete for the best place in Norway to see the northern lights, with many tour companies based in both cities. Norway’s long coastline means northern lights cruises are very popular. The constant movement of the ship means finding clear skies at some point is likely, although it does make photography more challenging.

Sweden: Abisko bills itself as not just the best place in Sweden to see the lights, but one of the best places in the world. The reason? The so-called ‘blue hole’, a patch of sky rarely covered in cloud because of its position to the east of the Scandinavian mountains.

Finland: Often overlooked compared to its Scandinavian neighbors, the north of Finland can be an excellent alternative. Rovaniemi is a good base for families as it’s accessible by plane or train, and known as the home of Santa Claus.

Aurora photography tips

Capturing the aurora borealis used to require professional camera equipment to stand any chance at all. Thanks to rapid advances in smartphone camera technology, that’s no longer the case.

Magazine-quality photography still requires a professional camera and the skills to use it. There’s no point in investing in expensive equipment without understanding the relationship between aperture, ISO and shutter speed.

However, most advanced smartphones released in the last few years are able to capture something that will be good enough to relive the moment for years to come. You’ll need a smartphone camera with a night mode or the ability to take a long exposure shot. It’s worth taking the time to practice these techniques at night before your trip in order to avoid disappointment when the moment arrives.

That being said, rather than desperately fiddling about with your smartphone, it’s a far wiser choice to simply watch the aurora when you get the chance.