Northern Lights – What, When and Where

If you’ve read my travelogue of Tromso and Iceland, you’d know that watching Northern Lights AKA Aurora Borealis was one of the things in my bucket list. I managed to see them twice. I am often asked questions about it so I decided to write an article about Northern lights.

Aurora Borealis
Right next to a lake, with no one around except for cold wind, stars and aurora — That’s my kind of weekend party!

What are Northern Lights AKA Aurora Borealis?

The Aurora is an incredible light show caused by collisions between electrically charged particles released from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen. The lights are seen around the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. Auroras that occur in the northern hemisphere are called ‘Aurora Borealis’ or ‘northern lights’. You can read more about them at this excellent website.

Where to see Northern Lights?

Well, as suggested by name, in the North. You can go to Northern parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland, Russia, Canada and US to see them. Most of the people choose Norway and Iceland to see them as there are other activities to do there besides the lights.

Tromso and Reykjavik are two good options as they have good flight connections from all over the Europe and US.

Personally, I’d prefer Reykjavik over Tromso as the Reykjavik city is more lively and friendly. Food is also way better than Tromso and these days with WOW Air, flights are way cheaper and you can be at Reykjavik airport in couple hours from Boston, New York, Amsterdam or Berlin.

Click here to check for flight availability to Reykjavijk

 

When to See Northern Lights

Since the lights are caused by charged particles from escaping from Sun, whenever there is a significant event on the sun means this phenomenon will be happening somewhere on either poles.

However, due to several reasons, you might not be able to see it. Up in North during summer, it’s always sunlight. It’s not dark enough to see the lights. In winters, it can get very cold. So in my opinion, September, October, March and April are the best months as it’s not very cold and nights are still long enough to have complete darkness.

Other than that, you should also choose a moonless night. It’s not necessary but a dark night with no source of light can show you wonders. And of course, sky has to be clear with no clouds. More details about these things are described in details in next section.

How to See Northern Lights

Once you get to Reykjavik, there are two options to see those lights. Either you book a guided tour with one of many companies. What they do is, they pick you from your hotel and they take you to places that are with minimum or close to no light pollution.

Away from everyone but stars

Good thing about these tours is, the guides have quite experience about the places. If the lights doesn’t show up or the skies are not clear, they’ll drive you to another place where the possibility of seeing lights are higher. In Tromso, my guide drove us all the way to Finnish border to find clear skies as weather in Tromso and surrounding Norway was too cloudy.

The thing that I don’t like about these tours is that it takes away the freedom. I’d rather spend the whole night outside and see the sunrise then returning at 3 AM. Also, there are a lot of people in these tours. Specially in Reykjavik, it’s getting more commercial and there are a lot of people with their Cameras and phones with flash turned on and that can ruin the whole experience. It’s an experience that you wanna experience in solitude or with someone special. When the light shows up, you just wanna stand there in complete silence and awe and forget about everything.

Light pollution Map

Here is what I did last 2 times, I just asked for the return timing from my bus driver and although he strongly advised against it, I took a 10 minutes walk in a random direction into darkness and walked until I was away from everyone. There I could enjoy the lights and take pictures without anyone disturbing me.

Another option to see the lights is to do everything on your own. Rent a car and hunt lights yourself. Personally, that’s what I am gonna do next time. It gives you a lot of freedom to do things on your own. So first thing is to find a place to drive where there is artificial light. I use this application called “Dark Sky Finder” for iOS.  But you can find more options here at this link. In these applications you can find a map of light pollution. Find a dark place and drive there.

There are also Aurora Forecast apps that you can use to see how much solar activity you can expect today.

Combine these couple of application together, you can drive around and get the best photos  and experience of Aurora. Again, you might fail in the first few attempts but it’s worth the try.

 

Check list

To be able to see the lights, you need more or less 10 following things,

  1. Passion
  2. Passion
  3. Passion
  4. Money for flying and accommodation at those remote places
  5. Month with good amount of Solar activity (March, April, September and October are best)
  6. Days that are not too long or short (Again above four months are ideal)
  7. Dark place with no artificial light to be able to experience Aurora in her full glory
  8. Preferably, a moonless night
  9. Preferably, a good partner or friend who is as passionate as you, as it can get really lonely in those cold places
  10. Lot of luck, the weather in those regions are very bad. Rainy and cloudy. Since this phenomenon happens 90-700 kilometers above surface of Earth, you need a cloud free sky to see it otherwise clouds block the view. And for the clear sky, you need luck.

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