The enchanting celestial dance of the blue and green Northern Lights is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many travellers and astronomers.
We’ve all seen the spectacular images of undulating blue-green lights dancing across a clear night sky on social media, but few will ever have the chance to stand beneath the celestial performance in person. Formally known as the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights are a dazzling experience that can be seen at various locations across the world with seasonal intensity.
What are the Northern Lights?
Also known as the Northern Lights, aurora borealis is a swirling display of green and blue lights that move unpredictably across the sky in specific regions of the world. It’s believed that Galileo was the first person to name the dancing lights in 1623, with ‘aurora’ derived from the Roman goddess of dawn and ‘boreas’ from the Greek god of wind and storms. Aurora is also the Latin word for dawn.
What causes the aurora borealis?
The aurora borealis is a natural electrical phenomenon caused by an interaction between sun particles and Earth’s upper atmosphere. The particles are drawn towards us by Earth’s magnetic field only to crash into nitrogen and oxygen atoms. It is this collision that creates the colourful lights. The Northern Lights are regarded as a bucket list experience for many travellers and sky watchers, and the bright colours of the aurora borealis are influenced by the chemical composition of Earth’s atmosphere.
Where are the best places to see the aurora borealis?
The first clue as to where the Northern Lights can be found is in the name. The best places to see the aurora borealis are all north towards the Arctic Circle, such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
The best time to see the Northern Lights is a clear, dark night with no cloud cover, on or around a new moon. Winter is the best time to see the aurora borealis, from December through to March in the Northern Hemisphere. Plan to watch the sky with a keen eye from 9pm to 2am. The lights are often most active in 30-minute periods and can occur every two hours at peak times. However, the Northern Lights are an unpredictable and sporadic natural phenomenon that can be invisible to the naked eye or not occur at all, so it’s impossible to guarantee a sighting.
Eight of the best places to see the Northern Lights
Northern Norway enters a period of darkness from late September through to March, with night descending across the region from early afternoon until late morning – perfect conditions for viewing the aurora borealis. Statistically, the Northern Lights are most active during March, April, September and October in Norway, and there’s even an app, NorwayLights, that provides access to a three-day aurora borealis forecast to help skywatchers find the best time and place to view the show. The best cities and locations from which to see the Northern Lights in Norway are Bodø, Lofoten, Narvik, Tromsø, Svalbard, The Lyngenfjord Region, Nordkapp, Vesterålen, Kirkenes, Varanger and Senja.
The towns and settlements in Greenland have small environmental footprints and minimal light pollution, creating an environment conducive to viewing the Northern Lights. In winter, hues of green, purple and blue can be seen flickering above Greenland’s snow-capped terrain and towns. The Greenland Ice Sheet in Kangerlussuaq, the coastal town of Sisimiut, and Ilulissat in the north are some of the best locations to see the aurora borealis in Greenland. Kulusuk and Tasiilaq in the east, and the capital city of Nuuk are also great viewing platforms.
While it’s possible to see the aurora borealis almost anywhere in Canada throughout the year, the northern regions are where the phenomenon tends to be most active. Communities with little to no light pollution are where visitors have the highest chance of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights, which are visible in the Northwest Territories around 240 nights a year. Northern Manitoba is in the sub-Arctic Circle and here you’ll find Churchill, self-proclaimed as one of the top three places on the planet to see the lights. The Yukon, Nunavut, Newfoundland, Labrador, Ontario and Alberta also host the sight.
For those visiting Iceland for the sole purpose of viewing the aurora borealis, it’s recommended to time a stay between September and April. Thingvellir National Park in the south, Asbyrgi Canyon in the north, and Kirkjufell Mountain in the west are excellent starting points for seeing the Northern Lights, but sightings are also common in places such as the Westfjords and North Iceland – although it’s best to avoid cities due to the light pollution. Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in South Iceland, some parts of Reykjavik, Oskjuhlid Hill and Seltjarnarnes Peninsula are also popular.
The Northern Lights first peek over the horizon in September in the far north of Sweden, viewable in and around Kiruna. By January, the pink, green and purple illuminations can be seen throughout Swedish Lapland. Abisko and the Aurora Sky Station in Northern Sweden is a fantastic location from which to see the aurora borealis, followed by the village of Jukkasjärvi, and Porjus in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Laponia.
The Northern Lights shine almost every day in Finnish Lapland between September and March. Visitors to the area should tie in a visit to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finland known as the ‘official’ hometown of Santa Claus in the Arctic Circle. Sign up for the Finnish Meteorological Institute’s Auroras Now! Website for email alerts of magnetic conditions.
Bordering British Columbia and Yukon in Canada, the non-contiguous US state of Alaska is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. Time a trip to this snow-covered state from August to April to maximise chances of seeing the aurora borealis, and head towards the interior and Arctic regions. Fairbanks is the top spot for viewing, but locations such as Coldfoot, Wiseman, Barrow and Deadhorse also get great displays.
Scotland is rarely the first place people think of when identifying locations from which to view the Northern Lights, but glimpses of the solar ballet can be caught at a few locations throughout this beautiful country. In fact, northern Scotland sits at the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway. Known as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’ in this part of the world, the aurora borealis can be spotted from the Hebrides on the islands of Lewis, Harris and Skye. Applecross, Lochinver and north of Ullapool on the west coast catch the lights, as do Rannoch Moor, Perthshire and the Cairngorms, and Edinburgh if the aurora borealis is strong. Aberdeenshire, Moray Coast, Angus, Fife and East Lothian also see the lights at times.
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