A guide to seeing the Northern Lights

Aurora over Kattfjord, Norway. September 2002

Aurora over Kattfjord, Norway. September 2002

Seeing the aurora borealis for the first time is one of my most vivid memories. We were staying in the Shetland Islands, around 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland, and had returned to our cottage after dinner. It was just before midnight, and being early April it was still bitterly cold when the wind came howling in from the open ocean that lapped against the rocks beneath our windows.

I stepped out, more in hope than expectation, and stared at the clear sky. The stars shine brilliantly here, with none of the light pollution that blights much of the UK. I wasn’t on the look-out for stars however. Right on cue, from the western horizon I saw a diffuse red glow and excitedly called Sam down to take a look. By the time she joined me outside the glow had intensified and climbed high into the sky. It soon transformed into green and white ribbons of light, its constant movement leaving us mesmorised. Over the next two hours we stood in awe as before us we observed nature’s greatest display. At one point the lights shone down from directly overhead, with a dark central corona emiting rays of multi-coloured light towards the horizon in every direction.

Aurora over Shetland. April 2000

Aurora over Shetland. April 2000

We had struck lucky. Our week in Shetland in April 2000 had coincided with one of the strongest bursts of solar activity for years, and in fact that night the aurora borealis was seen over southern England and even in France. Strong displays of the aurora are impossible to predict however, so it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. So how can we give ourselves the best chance of witnessing the northern lights?

Firstly, solar activity has an 11 year cycle, and the chances of seeing the aurora are increased greatly at the peak of the cycle. The next peak period will be in 2013-14, so it’s a good idea to plan a northern lights trip for that time, although auroras can appear at any time in the cycle.

Secondly the further north you are, the better the chance of seeing the aurora. Northern Scotland does offer the best chance to see the lights in the UK, but for better odds you need to go to northern Norway and Sweden in Europe, and Canada or Alaska in North America. Greenland and Iceland are also in an excellent place to witness the northern lights, and the difficulty of reaching Greenland make it a bigger (if very expensive) adventure. There is an equivalent in the southern hemisphere, the aurora australis. However, because the good places to see these lights are all on the Antarctic ice, you have to rely on good luck to witness the rare sightings in Tasmania or southern New Zealand.

Then there’s the weather. Bill Bryson famously went to the north of Norway to witness the aurora and ended up staying a month until the clouds parted and allowed him a glimpse of the magical spectacle. Iceland too suffers from almost constant cloud cover. Alaska and Canada may offer a higher probability of clear skies, along with northern Siberia (if you can bear the extreme temperatures).

It also needs to be very dark, and in these northern extremes there is little or no night during the summer months. September- October and March-April offer the best times to view the aurora; it’s dark enough without having to bear the worst of the winter temperatures.

If it seems too much trouble to travel somewhere cold and dark on the off-chance of seeing the northern lights, there is an easier way. Next time you travel eastwards across the Atlantic, try to get seated by the left-hand window (any A seat). If you look out as you pass over Greenland and Iceland in the middle of the night, there is a pretty good chance you’ll see a dancing green curtain in the northern sky. You might not feel as though you’ve seen it properly, but it will almost certainly tempt you to go north to see the lights from the ground in all their glory. We’ve been lucky enough to see the aurora in four different countries, and will certainly be heading north again in three years time to take our chances again.

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

25 Responses to “A guide to seeing the Northern Lights”

  1. I’ve never been lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, but I also didn’t know about the 11 year cycle. Sound like 13-14 could be my year! Thanks for the good tip – Beverly

    March 2, 2010 at 2:08 pm
  2. We’ve been thinking along the same lines on our blog. We found a potentially useful site – it’s an aurora forecaster from the University of Alaska:

    http://www.gi.alaska.edu/aurora_predict/worldmap6.html

    Bill

    March 2, 2010 at 6:50 pm
  3. I’m actually on a mailing list that is supposed to alert me whenever auroral activity is on the rise, but unfortunately, we’ve been in a trough of activity for a couple of years. It goes in cycles. The coming year is supposed to be much better. Fingers crossed, because this is #1 on my bucket list. Bookmaked your post so I’ll have it ready when and if things start to happen.

    March 2, 2010 at 7:52 pm
  4. Thanks for the link Bill. I used a couple of forecasting sites last time we were north, and they’re good to plan whether it’s worth staying up to try and spot the aurora (although like the weather forecasts they’re far from foolproof).

    Barbara, Beverly – definitely make the effort to see them. You won’t be disappointed!
    Thanks for the comments.

    March 2, 2010 at 10:43 pm
  5. do you know what – that is really good to have read – really want to see this and am about to start looking into it seriously – but actually really good to know / if a little frustrating but if its best in 2013/ 14 then thats what i;m going to wait for

    March 3, 2010 at 5:24 pm
  6. Thanks Laura. Activity does go in cycles, and there are still some great sightings of the aurora this year. But yes, over the next three years you chances should improve steadily each year.
    Whenever you decide to go, the good thing is that northern Norway, Iceland, Alaska are such beautiful places that even if you don’t get to see the aurora you’re bound to have a memorable trip.

    March 3, 2010 at 5:29 pm
  7. norway is really appealing – advice on any good forecasting sites – most appreciated and also any tips on operators who do a good job looking after you out there …

    March 3, 2010 at 5:43 pm
  8. Being a Canadian, I’ve had the joy of seeing the Northern Lights many, many times in my life. Even in the city it is sometimes possible to see them as a ghostly haze in the night sky.

    But two times have been spectacular. One goes back over 40 years to a cold spring night when a bunch of us were rattling the back roads near Edmonton, Alberta calling for owls. Sheesh, the things you do when you are young and enthusiastic about nature.

    Anyhow someone noticed the Aurora and we stood for a long time by the side of the road watching the green, pink and lavender curtains sway and dance overhead. After a while we climbed up onto the hood of my friend’s big old half-ton truck and lay down so that we got the heat from the motor and our necks didn’t hurt.

    What then happened was amazing. The curtain display gradually faded and the sky began to pulse like a diffuse strobe light. It was awe inspiring! Even after all of these years I well remember that evening.

    Then about a decade ago I was down in Nova Scotia leading a retreat at an oceanside resort. About 10ish the innkeeper knocked at our door to let us know there was a big display of lights. Out we went onto a deck, mere feet from the Atlantic waves lapping the shore. Overhead were arcing streaks of green phosphorescence dancing. The stars seemed especially brilliant that night. Suddenly this sky changed too and all the streaks of green came together into a large, diffuse ball that turned the most incredible colour of metallic red that seemed to have life to it. I can’t even tell you if it pulsed I was so smitten with the colour display involved. But it is another experience of the Northern Lights that blew my mind.

    Thanks for an invitation to remember two wonderful experiences in life. We are so fortunate in this part of the world to have access to the wonders of nature.

    Gwen McCauley

    March 5, 2010 at 12:34 pm
  9. What wonderful stories Gwen. Of course in Canada you are spoilt with great sightings! It’s well worth getting out in the cold for, isn’t it!

    March 5, 2010 at 1:56 pm
  10. What fantastic advice! I am desperately trying to see the northern lights in the near future and will definitely do some serious research before making final plans. Looks like I have a couple years before peak, so I think I’ll be good to go :) Thanks so much for this!

    March 13, 2010 at 6:44 pm
  11. i am speechless. the Aurora is really beautiful. I’ve only ever seen it in the movies but I am sure that the real deal will knock all the breath out of me. thanks for the tip.. if ever we go, I will try to grab the window seat (which I normally do anyway).

    March 21, 2010 at 10:52 pm
  12. Kash Bhattacharya #

    ecause of todays’s impending once in a lifetime solar storm, been waiting all day for the broadband, mobile phone, Sky to go ping and shutdown.

    But Dday has come and almost gone and still all is working fine:)

    Plus its overcast in Edinburgh so even if there was any wild chance of seeing Northern Lights in these parts ….its dashed

    Over and out :)

    Kash
    http://www.europebudgetguide.com

    August 3, 2010 at 11:31 pm
  13. No dramas, and no lights this time. But you guys in Edinburgh have a much better chance than us southerners, so keep your eyes on them skies!

    August 4, 2010 at 11:25 pm
  14. nice story and pictures. Norway a really fantastic place that you can see a modern life and a polar life.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:59 pm
  15. Erin #

    Wow is all I can say reading about yours and Gwen’s experience watching the Northern Lights. I’m planning to travel to Norway in March 2012 and really hope to be able to see this natural spectacle. Would really appreciate any travel tips. Do you reckon my chances of seeing the NL are better if I travel in March or April?

    October 10, 2011 at 2:34 am
    • The earlier you go in the year the more hours of darkness you’ll have to look for the lights. Where in Norway will you go Erin? It’s such a big country that the chances of seeing the Northern Lights vary dramatically from north to south.Good luck!

      October 10, 2011 at 7:21 am
      • Erin #

        Hi Andy
        I have 12 nights total in Norway. I hope to see the NL in Tromso, with a plan to stay there for 3 nights. I’m flying all the way from Singapore on 1 March to Tromso. I also plan to visit Bergen, Trondheim and also end with a 3 night-stay in Oslo. My plans are really flexible.

        Do you think I should join one of the NL tours in Tromso?

        I would appreciate any suggestions, advice, tips.

        December 29, 2011 at 8:22 am
        • Hi Erin, your trip sounds fabulous. March is a good time to be there and you’ll just have to hope for clear skies when you get to Tromso – there’s nothing else you can do!

          I didn’t join one of the NL tours but I’ve heard good things about them. Of course you can make your own way out of the city (esp. if you rent a car) and find a place away from light pollution – you don’t have to go far. And however much you pay for a tour they can’t make the clouds go away. If you want to hear some of the stories and legends around the lights and to enjoy your quest with hot drinks and company then it’s a good plan.

          Good luck with the trip!

          December 29, 2011 at 9:21 am
  16. We saw some great ones in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan earlier this year. Hope to see more next summer!

    October 10, 2011 at 9:28 pm
  17. So here’s a question: of the places you can see them in northern Norway, which are worth a short trip regardless, just in case you’re not in luck? Anyone have any tips pls?

    January 14, 2012 at 12:26 pm
    • Good question Jools. For me Tromso is still worth a few days even without the lights. There’s a fair bit to do in town and the scenery when you take a short drive in any direction is stunning.
      As for Iceland, I’ll let you know in a couple of months..

      January 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm
      • Erin #

        Hi Andy,
        You know although we very much hope we’d be lucky to see the northern lights, we decided we’re not going to go away too disappointed if we didn’t get to witness it . I’m sure Norway has a lot to offer, but it would surely be sweet if we get to see the NL :)

        Is Alta and the ice hotel worth a side trip? Or should i just enjoy Tromso?

        January 25, 2012 at 11:55 am
  18. Cheyla #

    I live in Saskatchewan, Canada and reading these comments make me realize how much I have taken the Northern Lights for granted. I have been watching them for so many years, never as bright as I have seen of pictures and heard in stories. I someday want to travel more North to see an amazing display. Definitely a trip worth the dark and cold. Thanks for the post!

    January 25, 2012 at 2:15 pm
  19. Becky Poston #

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and have been wanting to see the NL for a while. I am planning a trip to Alaska in March 2013 and am hoping this is the month to see them. Anyone have any particiular place I should go?

    March 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm
  20. Rebecca Rill #

    Helli I seen he north lights in the USA when I was a kid prob when I was 9. When will they be back I want my kids to see what I seen and no one be leaves me iv seen the light I’d like to Prov people wrong lol well dose anyone know

    April 21, 2012 at 4:59 am
css.php