One of the experiences right near the top of my bucket list is to one day see the Northern Lights. Based on discussions I’ve had, I’m not the only one with them on my bucket list. Also known as aurora borealis, these magical looking lights, with its green and pink ripples and arcs moving across the sky, are one of the closest things to experiencing magic here on earth.
Despite seeming magical, the lights are a completely natural, explainable phenomena, formed from electrically charged particles from the sun entering the earth’s atmosphere. The aurora is mainly seen over the magnetic poles (distinct from the geographic poles), extending further away during periods of high geomagnetic activity.
Key Factors to Seeing the Northern Lights
There are four key factors to seeing the Northern Lights:
- The aurora is most often seen during periods of higher geomagnetic activity. Researchers have discovered that auroral activity is cyclical, peaking roughly once every 11 years. The last peak occurred in 2013, with the next not due until 2014.
- The aurora is best seen in winter time, due to the longer period of darkness. Auroras still occur during summer time. But at high altitude there is only a few hours of darkness, if at all, and with the sky still light the aurora cannot be seen.
- The other main natural obstacle to seeing the aurora is cloud cover. In one location, there may be visible magnificent displays of the aurora. But only a few kilometres away it may be not visible due to thick clouds. This is particularly an issue near the coastline in Scandinavia, where clouds are most common in winter.
- Finally, light pollution from cities affects the visibility of the aurora, the same as for seeing stars. It’s best to view the Northern Lights in remote locations, far away from larger cities and towns. Although sometimes it’s enough to head just a few miles out of town.
One of the most popular places to see the Northern Lights is in northern Scandinavia, also known as Lapland. Some of the best destinations here include Alta and Karasjok in Norway, and Inari in Finland. Alta is one of the northernmost locations in Lapland that is accessible, with its own airport. Despite being on the coastline it’s fairly good weather wise, plus has plenty of activities. Karasjok is further inland, so offers a higher chance of clear skies, and has zero light pollution. Inari in contrast is quite bad for light pollution, but is fine once you get a few kilometres out of town, surrounded by wonderful pine forests. It’s also little affected by clouds from the sea.
Another alternative destination for seeing the Northern Lights in Europe is to head to Iceland. Iceland is a great location to head to if you want to travel independently, compared to taking a package tour to the other more remote locations in Lapland. Plus if you’re heading there from Europe there’s cheap airfares on offer through Icelandair. Head outside of Reykjavik for the best views.
Canada and Alaska
While most people immediately think of northern Europe when it comes to the Northern Lights, they’re also visible in Canada and Alaska. One of the best places to see them is in Churchill, in the Canadian province of Manitoba. Package tours to Churchill often include “Tundra Buggy” trips at night. More remote locations to head to include Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
Don’t Forget the Aurora Australis
In the Southern Hemisphere, the lights are known as the Aurora Australis. These are sometimes visible from southern New Zealand, Tasmania in Australia and southern South America, but not as frequently as the Northern Lights are visible. This is due to the main latitudes at which the Northern Lights are seen being situated above the ocean in the southern hemisphere, with a lot less land until you reach Antarctica (which is virtually never visited by tourists outside of the southern summer). However, if you’re in the area, keep an eye on local websites for details, even during the summer time. (As the nights are longer at these higher altitudes, there’s still a chance of viewing the lights.)
Glamping to see the Northern Lights
One of the most impressive ways to see the Northern Lights would be while staying in an Aurora Dome. Located at Torassieppi Reindeer Farm and Cabins in Finland, these large tent or yurt-like structures echo the design of an igloo, but with far more creature comforts, including a wood burning stove and a large double bed, from which you can view the sky through clear panels.
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