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.
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.