The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights are one of the most spectacular natural sights in the world. Knowing when the best time to see the Northern Lights is key to giving yourself the best chance of success at seeing the aurora on your trip.
What Are the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are on most people’s travel bucket lists. But what are they? The Northern Lights are caused by a reaction of solar particles hitting the earth’s atmosphere and reacting with the oxygen and nitrogen within it.
To answer the question “what are the Northern Lights” in more detail, the Northern Lights are caused by the electrons and protons hurled out by solar flares on the sun’s surface entering the earth’s atmosphere and colliding with oxygen and nitrogen molecules.
A large proportion of the electrons and protons are deflected by the earth’s magnetic field, but some make it to the upper atmosphere. The magnetic field is weaker at the North and South poles, so more of the electrons and protons make it through at these points.
Photons (light particles) are emitted as part of the reaction between the electrons, protons, oxygen and nitrogen – and together these photons create the Northern Lights.
When is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights?
Generally, the best time to see the Northern Lights is between September and April when the long hours of darkness mean plenty of opportunity for seeing the aurora. The Northern Lights occur throughout the year. During May, June, July and August the sun doesn’t dip far enough below the horizon for the skies to be dark enough to see the aurora.
As the Northern Lights are invisible during daylight, the rule of thumb is that longer the sky is dark, the better the chance you have of seeing them. As you need darkness to see the aurora, timing your visit to coincide with a new moon is also a good idea.
Is There Anything Else I Need to Consider When Looking at the Best Time to See the Northern Lights?
Yes, lots. Some years are better for aurora activity than others. Because the aurora borealis is dependent on solar activity, when there is a lot of solar activity, the Northern Lights are more frequent and displays are more intense. You can buy a telescope to help with viewing the lights, but generally they can be seen with the naked eye.
There are a lot of other factors that influence when’s the best time to see the Northern Lights but these are almost impossible to predict.
For example, it’s easier to see the aurora when there are fewer clouds hiding it, but saying which months are likely to be less cloudy is a risky business. Some say that there are fewer clouds after the winter snows have fallen (generally March and April), and others to avoid autumn as Northern hemisphere autumns are cloudier, but it’s not worth planning the timing your whole trip on this basis.
While you could assume that the winter months would be the best time to see the Northern Lights, there’s reasonable evidence to show that the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes (in March and September respectively) are actually a very good time to see them.
There are more geomagnetic storms in the Earth’s magnetic field at this time, meaning more photons and electrons make it through to the atmosphere to cause the phenomena.
Whether that’s true or not, the weather is certainly warmer at these times, so a Northern Lights viewing trip is more pleasant. On the downside, you’ll need to stay up later for your chance to see them, as the daylight hours are longer.
Another benefit of travelling to see the Northern Lights during the warmer months is an increased chance of seeing the lights reflected on the surface of a large body of water. The water generally freezes in the best Aurora viewing regions by the time you reach November.
Can You Predict the Sun’s Activity?
The sun goes through an activity cycle, which takes roughly 11 years to complete – each 11 years, it reaches the Solar Maximum point, which is when solar activity is at its highest. Similarly, it will also reach the Solar Minimum, when the solar activity is at its lowest every 11 years as part of the cycle.
When Was the Last Solar Maximum? Can I See the Northern Lights This Year?
The last Solar Maximum was in 2014. We tend to see strong displays of aurora borealis for two to three years before the Solar Maximum and after the Solar Maximum, so 2017/18 are likely to be the best years for seeing the Northern Lights over the course of the next few years.
So What Time of Year Should I Plan My Northern Lights Trip?
September and March are a good time to go as you have enough daylight hours to go and do other things too. As a sighting of the Northern Lights isn’t guaranteed, and is always a matter of luck and weather, planning your trip solely to revolve around them can lead to disappointment.
The equinoxes mean that there’s a relatively good chance of seeing the Aurora if it’s not too cloudy – aurora activity can be better in Spring and Autumn than in mid-winter, though this is not a rule.
There are so many factors at play in determining when the best time to see the Northern Lights is. The key factor is darkness so plan for darker months and during a new moon. Plus allow a number of nights to try and see the lights to give yourself the best chance.
What Time of Day is the Best to See the Northern Lights?
The general hour is any time when the sky is dark. But between 9pm and 2am is prime viewing time and when most viewing expeditions go out.
Where’s The Best Place to See the Northern Lights?
Iceland is the best place to see the Northern Lights from the UK as it’s the most affordable and convenient of the destinations mentioned to reach. In addition to this, it’s easy to set off independently to see the Northern Lights (although there are plenty of tours too) so you’re not tied to going on a group tour.
You need to distance yourself from artificial lights – so wherever you travel to for your Northern Lights trip, you should aim to head out of the city and into the countryside as far away from light pollution as possible.
Iceland is a great destination for seeing the Northern Lights. It’s easy to access from the UK and offers lots of options for your aurora viewing trip. Venture outside of the capital Reykjavik for the best viewing opportunities.
Head into Finland’s Arctic Circle for great aurora-spotting opportunities, combined with other winter activities such as husky-sledding.
The north of Norway is a spectacular location for seeing the Northern Lights. The low population density means there’s little light pollution for even better chances of seeing the lights. Tromso is a 3.5 hour flight from the UK and offers great aurora-spotting opportunities throughout the darker months.
Swedish Lapland is a great place to see the Northern Lights. Abisko, in the Arctic Circle is reputed to be the best aurora-watching spot in the world, thanks to its special microclimate which means it has less precipitation than other aurora-spotting destinations. Kiruna, Jukkasjärvi and Luleå are also good spots to head to.
Outside of the capital, Nuuk and other cities, Greenland can be difficult to access in the winter months. With its small size, Nuuk emits lower levels of light pollution than other cities, and displays over the city are frequent. Otherwise, travel in September and March, when you can access more of the country.
Alaska’s vast wilderness is perfect for seeing the Northern Lights. Head into the Arctic Circle for the best chances of spotting the phenomena.
Canada offers the opportunity to see the Northern Lights in as wild a setting as you please. The Yukon and Alberta are the best regions to go to.
I Don’t Want to go out into the Cold. Can I See the Northern Lights Indoors?
Sure you can. There are lots of hotels offering indoor Northern Light viewing opportunities from the comfort of a warm room.
You can also tune into these livecams from your computer – it’s not the same but pretty entrancing nonetheless.
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