My quest to see the Northern Lights began in September 2011. I had literally just left Tim in Iceland and the very next night the Northern Lights danced for a week straight. They were so bright and so active, they even kept him up at night. After Tim raving about how incredible they were, I just had to see for myself.
I got my first chance just three months later when I spent five nights in Rovaniemi, Finland on the Arctic Circle. And for five cloudy nights, I eventually went to bed after watching the sky until the wee hours of the morning. Then Tim and I traveled to Svalbard in March of 2012. At 78° North and just 600 miles from the North Pole, we were actually above the Aurora Belt. We spent four nights watching for the elusive Aurora. Finally, on our second night in Tromso (on the eve of my birthday) the Northern Lights finally made an appearance. But it was cloudy, they were a white-gray color, and they danced for less than an hour. I had seen them, but it wasn’t what I expected and I craved a more spectacular display.
Wanting to ring in the New Year in Reykjavik because of the fireworks display of epic proportions we had heard about, the trip gave us another excuse to go Aurora hunting. In the weeks leading up to our Iceland adventure and ever since, we’ve received tons of messages, comments, and emails from our readers and followers about trips to see the Northern Lights. I don’t want to be a Negative Nancy, but feel it’s my duty to tell you all these five things no one ever tells you about the Northern Lights:
1. Don’t go for the Northern Lights; go for the destination.
In talking to locals, including our new friend The Aurora Hunter, no one in Iceland had seen the Northern Lights in 3 weeks prior to our sighting. Storms had moved in clouding up the night skies and there just wasn’t much activity going on on the sun.
Had we visited Iceland, Finland, Norway or Svalbard only hoping to see the Northern Lights, we’d probably be really disappointed right about now. Instead, each destination gave us fantastic opportunities to be mushers for the day, go glacier hiking, and look for polar bears on a snowmobile expedition. Your adventure will be a memorable one when you have activities planned that you’re really excited for and seeing the Northern Lights is an added bonus if they do come out to dance.
But, if you really want the best chances of seeing the Northern Lights, head to Abisko. It’s the driest place in Sweden and has the most clear nights of almost anywhere else in the Aurora belt.
In order to see the Northern Lights, you need a dark, clear night. They are visible from late September to March anywhere from 6pm to 6am. There also needs to be solar flares on the sun or solar wind; the Aurora Borealis happens when particles from the sun enter Earth’s atmosphere and collide violently with gas atoms. There are Aurora forecasts and we even use the Aurora Forecast app for iPhone that will predict the aurora activity level. But the fact is, the Northern Lights are unpredictable. We’ve had clear nights when the Aurora forecast showed level 4 (high) activity and we didn’t see anything. The Aurora forecast said level 0 (no activity) on January 4, 2013 when we saw them.
The weather in the Arctic is as notoriously unpredictable as the Northern Lights themselves. It’s not unusual to have sunshine, clouds, rain, sleet, hail, snow, and high winds all in the same day. Just because you wake up to crystal clear skies, that doesn’t mean those crystal clear skies will stick around until Northern Lights viewing time.
And the reverse is true. It was snowing heavily and there was 100% cloud cover when we went to bed on the night we did see the Northern Lights. Which leads me to my next tip…
As I said before, it has to be dark to see the Northern Lights. That may mean you need to get out of the city to avoid light pollution. The Northern Lights are visible in cities like Reykjavik and Tromsø when they are at the strongest, but your best bet is to seek out spots in the Arctic countryside.
Northern Lights tours are great because the tour operators have been chasing the Northern Lights for years and can find the best spots for potential viewing even when there is low hanging cloud cover. Most tour operators will even offer for you to join a tour the next evening if you don’t see the Northern Lights. Viator.com hosted us on a Northern Lights Cruise with Special Tours and even though our cruise turned into a bus tour because of high winds and we didn’t see the Northern Lights, Special Tours graciously invited every single person on the tour to join them again any night within the next year.
We spent nine nights in Iceland and after New Year’s Eve, we spent the remainder of our nights staying on Icelandic farms where we could literally walk out our front door to check for Aurora sightings. And that’s exactly what we did; we set our alarm clocks for every hour between 11pm and 2am. As much as it sucks dragging yourself out of your toasty warm bed after you’ve just drifted off to sleep and shocking yourself awake with blasts of cold Arctic air, our diligence paid off one evening.
Just after 1am and after we had gone to bed with heavy snow falling and 100% cloud cover, the wind blew the clouds away and a very faint green glow appeared on the horizon. We quickly threw on warm clothes and headed outside just in time for the Aurora to become active. It was only visible to our naked eye for about an hour, but we watched the green wisp billow and dance in the sky in the howling wind until the very last second that it danced away.
Tip: Some hotels (such as Hotel Berg where we stayed in Keflavik and Hotel Ranga on Iceland’s South Coast) offer an Aurora wake-up call. Be sure to ask at reception as they often have Aurora hunters that will call the night staff to alert them to sightings.
The unique colors of the Northern Lights are created by the Earth’s spectra of gases and the height in the atmosphere where the collision of particles from the sun and the Earth’s gases takes place. Our naked eye can most easily see the green-yellow part of the spectrum where the sun emits most of its light. Green is the most common color observed but the Northern Lights can also appear white-gray. And a cloudy night if you’ve never seen them before, you might not even be entirely sure of what you’re looking at.
Sometimes the Northern Lights are even present but not visible to the naked eye. We took a photo of some Icelandic horses nearby our cabin after we thought the Northern Lights had disappeared. We couldn’t see them, but our camera still could.
So there you have it. Five things no one ever tells you about the Northern Lights. I didn’t tell them to discourage you from seeing the Northern Lights; they are absolutely spectacular and a phenomenon that everyone should see at least once in their life. All of our days hunting the Aurora Borealis unsuccessfully won’t be stopping us from continuing the hunt anytime soon.