HOW TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis are a stunning and elusive natural phenomenon seen in the sky in certain parts of the world. It occurs during solar flares, when the sun emits charged particles that then travel through and collide with the molecules and atoms in Earth’s atmosphere. The result, in basic terms, is pretty green,blue and/or purple lights waving across the sky! It is truly a magical sight to see at least once in your lifetime!
So, where do we start? How do you see the Northern Lights then? Unfortunately, they are never a guarantee, but let’s discuss, where, when and what tools will give you your best chance!
Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights?
The best places to see the Northern Lights are in northern countries near the arctic circle, which is closer to the poles of the Earth (Fun Fact, there are also SOUTHERN LIGHTS, but we’ll save that for another time!). Here is a list of 8 awesome locations to see the Northern Lights!
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
As these countries/locations are all so close to the arctic circle or north pole, that means their summers and winters have drastic differences to take into account! In order to see the northern lights, you must have a night that is completely dark, which will not happen in the summer! In the summer, these countries have what is called the ‘Midnight Sun’, This means that since they are so close to the poles, that the sun doesn’t fully set during the summer and the sky does not become dark enough to see the northern lights. In contrast, winter in these countries are extremely cold and dark, with little daylight at its peak. In other words, the lights are seasonal, and it’s important to pick the correct season and specific dates to suit your desires. For example, in Iceland, the peak season is September through March. September has more daylight to do other sight seeing as well as enough time to hunt for the northern lights at night. However, if you go in December, there may be only 4 hours of daylight! This would greatly increase you chances of spotting the northern lights, but perhaps not give you enough time for hiking or other sightseeing! On the flip side, many people would be fascinated to experience a winter soltice in Iceland! Whatever floats your boat! In conclusions, it is important to research hours of daylight around the dates you are considering and choose a time which best suits your goals!
Once you’ve decided on where to spend your Northern Lights vacation. How do you actually hunt?
There are many tour companies that will take you out to the best potential locations, but unless you’re planning on paying for a tour every night, there are some things you should know about hunting for the elusive northern lights!
1) Download a free tracker app! We used “My Aurora Forecast & Alerts” to keep an eye on the KP-index. The KP-index is the measurement of geomagnetic activity and has a scale of 0-9. The best nights to hunt will have an index of 4 or higher, though sometimes the KP-index will be a 3 and you may look up and be surprised by an appearance! In other words, the tracker apps are a great guide, but you should always sneak a peek out of your window just in case!
It is important to note that the Northern Lights can also range in visibility! The first night I ever saw the lights, the KP-index was at a 3, but as I looked up from the Blue Lagoon in Iceland (on my first night in the country by the way), I couldn’t help but to bemuse aloud that some of the clouds in the sky had a faint greenish tinge to them. Once we got to the parking lot, I decided there was definitely something green going on up there and decided to take a long exposure on my camera. Lo and behold, my LCD screen showed bright green, unmistakable northern lights! To the naked eye that night, they were cloudy and faint because the KP-index was low, but my camera was able to pick them up! (**HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS COMING SOON**)
Fast forward 6 days and the KP-index was at a 6 and I saw the show of a lifetime. Clearly visible columns of green and purple dancing through the sky!
2) As discussed before, you need total darkness. So, plan to start your hunt after the sun sets, or set up shop and hang out until the sun has gone down completely!
3) Clear skies. You could have a KP-Index of 9, but if there are a blanket of clouds in the sky, you’re going to miss it! If you are stuck in a cloudy area, you should still periodically peek outside, just in case there is a break in the clouds. There are also cloud coverage apps and websites to check out. If you are very serious about hunting, you can jump in the car and head to a nearby place on the map with clearer skies if there is a high KP-index on a particular night! (If you go to Iceland, en.vendur.is is a great website that reports cloud coverage forecast by hour and KP-index!)
4) Avoid light pollution. This goes hand in hand with total darkness but needs to be said. Even a full moon can effect visibility of the Northern Lights! Tours usually will take you out of cities and into more rural areas to go hunting and you should try to do the same! (*SAFELY!)
5) Plan to vacation for at least a week! The more nights you have to hunt, the better the chance you have to spot them!
My final concluding tip is to choose a destination that you really would like to explore and don’t choose a location solely for the northern lights. As stated before, the lights are quite elusive, they change in visibility, they can last minutes or hours. The KP-Index can look just right and you see nothing, or you can have too low of a forecast for your entire trip and simply miss them. It’s natural to feel disappointed if you miss them, but don’t let it make or break your adventure. You can always try again in the future, and when you finally do see them, it’ll make it all the more special. Well, that’s all folks! Happy hunting!