Hunting the northern lights is, for many, a lifetime dream – viewing a night sky ablaze in phosphorescent green light that seems to move and swirl like luminescent smoke. The northern lights are a natural phenomenon that through the centuries has inspired legend, mystery, fear and awe.
HI Travel Tales is not immune to the awe of the northern lights. He has seen them – and once you have seen them you know how indescribable they are. Thousands of incredible photos elicit gasps of wonder, but if you have seen them you know no photo and no words can capture the delicious wonder of seeing a liquid, ethereal green light shimmering across the sky.
She had not seen them – and hunting the northern lights was on her bucket list. With a bucket list item, there is indeed no time like the present. So, earlier this year, we said, let the planning begin! First, we wanted to know where and when to see them best. We wanted good odds!
What are the northern lights?
The sun causes the formation of the aurora borealis a.k.a. northern lights. During large solar explosions and flares, huge quantities of electrically charged particles are thrown out of the sun and into deep space. These electrons stream at a high speed toward earth along its magnetic field, colliding with air particles, resulting in the light show. Typically, it is a luminous green, sometimes tinged pink or red along the edges. The colors appear as swirls, streaks, shoots and curtains, ebbing and surging endlessly. Sometimes the color literally explodes into the sky, upward from the horizon. And sometimes it creeps in, gaining strength in color and brightness by the second until, just as quickly, it vanishes in its own game of hide-and-seek.
What are the best months to hunt northern lights?
The further north you go, the better the odds: Northern lights will be visible in a clear night sky at any time between the months of September and March. Yes, think cold, think Arctic Circle and above. She isn’t a huge fan of cold, especially standing around in it, but if northern lights were on the bucket list, then she had to accept cold too.
Where is a good place to see northern lights?
The show of light occurs most frequently in a belt that rings the earth up to a distance of about 1,550 miles from the magnetic north pole. This zone of light extends over northern Scandinavia, Iceland, the southern tip of Greenland and continues over northern Canada, Alaska and along the northern coast of Siberia.
After some research, we landed on Norway as a great destination for hunting the northern lights. That ring of light touches the Norwegian coastline and fjords from the Lofoten Islands all the way up to the North Cape. Historically, the Svalbard Islands and near the city of Tromso provide some of the best and most consistently brilliant viewing for those who hunt the northern lights. Sure, we wanted northern lights, but we also wanted to see something while waiting for them. In Norway, we could see fishing villages, medieval churches, Viking history, and beautiful fjords and take in Scandinavian history and culture too. Better than a warming hut in the middle of night in the middle of the wilderness!
Are there websites and apps to help when hunting the northern lights?
Not only are their forecasts available on apps, but they can also be relatively accurate. There are several sources we used, with good luck.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has its eyes and attention on space and weather, and as a result, solar flares and northern lights. Bookmark “Ovation Aurora” from the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center. http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/ovation/ The Aurora Forecast shows an image each day for the north and south poles and gauges the probability of visible aurora, or northern lights. Note the colors – yellow and red indicate most intense activity.
- We also loved the Norwegian News weather page with an Aurora (“Nordlys”) forecast for the day. Only in Norway! Which means it is in Norwegian too, but if you open the page in Google Chrome, it will translate it into pretty good English. http://www.storm.no/nordlys/
- For a bit more long-term forecasting in Norway – up to three days out – download the NorwayLights app from VisitNorway.com. It is available for iPhones, iPad and also Android devices. It works outside of Norway, for Norwegian destinations only, but it is at its best when you are using the app in the country itself. This app helped us gauge how prepared we needed to be to head outside for northern lights viewing. And it was surprisingly accurate. One night in Trondheim the forecast was high, so we bundled up in 20 degree Fahrenheit weather and headed to the fort on the hill pacing around in the cold, wondering if we were nuts. Like clockwork, the lights peeked out then exploded for an hour!
- Finally, there is a superb site run by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and the Polar Light Center in the Lofoten Islands has a night sky cam
Hunting the northern lights viewing tips
- Hurtigruten ferries accommodate passengers on voyages up and down the Norwegian coastline and are a great way to hunt the northern lights. A number of trips are targeted for those hunting the northern lights — begin your peek here ( In Search of Northern Lights ) Of course, you take any trip you want – just make sure it includes the northern cities. For our hunt, we did choose the Hurtigruten ship in the end and found it was a superb way to have a “moving bed” and stay warm inside, but then be alerted over an intercom if northern lights appeared. In those cases, it was a mad dash (sometimes a middle-of-the-night sleepy mad dash!) to the top deck.
- Naturally, the longer you allow yourself, the better your odds. During our 11-day Hurtigruten voyage aboard the Midnatsol, we were blessed with three nights of northern lights. The fourth night in Trondheim was after we disembarked.
- Be ready to head outdoors any time the night is starry, clear and cold – or simply set yourself up in a comfy chair and good viewing spot for the night, wrapping up warmly. On the ship, we laid out warm clothes and cameras, ready for the aurora fire drill dash.
- Darkness is your friend. The further you are away from city lights, the better your viewing experience will be. Hilltops and high vantage points (like old forts above cities) are ideal viewing platforms. Also, nights with little or no moon are best.
Remember, you are hunting a naturally occurring light. You cannot schedule it – yeah, too bad. Like any hunt, there is success and disappointment. Some days and even weeks are treats with fantastic light shows. Other times, the snowfall and cloud cover obscure the lights, or, they just hide.
Norway fulfilled her bucket list – four times even. The problem is, once you’ve seen them, you want to see them again and again, like an addiction. So it is when hunting the northern lights.