Where to see the Northern Lights

Posted on: 16 August 2010 by Mark O'haire

We recommend the best places and ways to experience the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.

Ohttp://owl-group-staging.s3.amazonaws.com/upload_datas/409/landscape_large.jpg?1288782476n a clear dark Arctic night, a faint glow of greenish light may appear low on the horizon. It might take the shape of an arch - and seem to drift across the night sky.

As time passes, more bands of light may form and drift overhead - slowly getting brighter and brighter until they form giant curtains of light that seem to be waving in a gentle breeze. The bottom of the curtains might brighten with a reddish tint and seem to ripple faster as more colours - blues and purples - also appear.

As you stand, staring as the curtains of light pass overhead, you might even see bright points of light that seem to swirl. The whole sky fills with colour and motion... and then slowly fades into a warm green glow.

These mesmerizsng, dynamic displays of light that appear in the night-time Arctic skies are the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. This is nature's light show!

What Are They?

Auroras are natural light displays in the sky, usually observed at night, particularly in the polar zone. They typically occur in the ionosphere. They are also referred to as "polar auroras".

In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis, and it was named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for north wind, Boreas by Pierre Gassendi in 1621.

The aurora borealis is also called the northern polar lights, as it is only visible in the sky from the Northern Hemisphere, the chance of visibility increasing with proximity to the northern magnetic pole, which is currently in the arctic islands of northern Canada.

Auroras seen near the magnetic pole may be high overhead, but from further away, they illuminate the northern horizon as a greenish glow or sometimes a faint red, as if the sun was rising from an unusual direction.

Where Does It Happen?

As the auroras appear in ovals around the magnetic poles, the best places to see the Northern Lights are, naturally, in an area around the North Geomagnetic Pole.

These include areas like Nunavut, northern Greenland, the Scandinavian coast, Siberia, and Alaska. But if you're planning a trip, keep in mind that places above the Arctic Circle have round-the-clock sunlight during the summer months. The auroras are very difficult to see in the sunlight.

So far, nobody has managed to work out the schedule for solar flares, and therefore there is no way to predict when the Northern Lights will be the most active. Depending on the level of recent solar activity, there may or may not be visible auroral activity all the way around the ring.

Sometimes an extremely violent solar flare can cause a much wider auroral ring, or cause a large bulge on the night side. This doesn't happen very often, but every few years people in more southern and populated areas may see an aurora.

How Does It Happen?

Red and green Aurora in Fairbanks, AlaskaBenjamin Franklin first brought attention to the "mystery of the Northern Lights." He theorised the shifting lights to a concentration of electrical charges in the polar regions intensified by the snow and other moisture.

Today’s scientists have put together three points which they believe cause the stunning display.

  1. The solar wind - a continuous flow of the Sun's magnetic field carrying charged particles (electrons and protons) from the Sun's atmosphere far out into the solar system.
  2. The "magnetosphere" - the area surrounding the Earth containing its magnetic field. The magnetic field is concentrated at the north and south magnetic poles.
  3. The Earth's atmosphere - the protective shield of gases that surrounds the planet.

Electrically charged particles come from space and enter the Earth's magnetosphere. They accelerate along the Earth's magnetic field lines which concentrate at the poles. The particles then plunge into the upper atmosphere where they collide with the gases that surround the Earth.

These collisions create energy, and the excess energy is given off in the form of light emissions. We call these light emissions the Northern Lights.

Where Can I See Them?

Tromso, Norway

Book a tour with local guide Kjetil Skogli. He's not the cheapest but is worth every penny.

He takes you out in a small group of six to eight in a minibus anywhere where the weather will be clear – other companies have a fixed base somewhere near Tromso, so if it's cloudy there but clear 30 miles away, then tough!

  • ScanTours offers a four-day Northern Lights Experience including return flights from London Heathrow to Tromso via Oslo for £625 per person.

Northern LightsSvalbard, Norway

A wonderful place for viewing the Northern Lights with a stunning landscape. Being over 78°N in places, you live the experience of the polar night, which is perpetual darkness.

  • Exodus has 2009 Spitzbergen tours taking in the Svalbard region at prices starting from £3,350 per person for 12 days including flights. For independent travellers, British Airways, BMI and Scandinavian Airlines operate flights to Tromso from UK airports including Manchester and London Gatwick with a stopover in Oslo.

Norwegian Cruise

Various cruise ships run services to the tip of Northern Light viewing. Norwegian Coastal Cruises sail through snow-clad islands for prime viewing.

  • Norwegian Coastal Cruises is offering a seven-day Northern Lights Experience voyage in January from £845 including flights, husky-dog sledging and a visit to the Viking capital of Trondheim

Lake Superior, Ontario, Canada

A one hour snowmobile ride north of Lake Superior in Canada offers a spectacular display of light.  Check for flights to Thunder Bay and be prepared for sub zero temperatures.

  • British Airways has return flights from the UK to Toronto for £409 and Air Canada from £408. Onward flights to Winnipeg Manitoba from £214 return and on again to Churchill from £440. Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill has double rooms from £66 per room per night and also offers polar bear Arctic tours.

The Northern LightsIceland

Iceland is currently having a few economic problems so perhaps you can get cheaper hotels and food than in Tromso. Reykjavik is more lively than Tromso but the city skies are not quite as dark due to more street lighting.

Northern Light sights will be less dramatic but the city atmosphere can always liven things up.

  • Icelandair has return flights from London, Glasgow or Manchester to Reykjavik from £228. Discover the World offers a three-night winter break to Iceland's capital city including flights, accommodation and a visit to the Blue Lagoon for £330.

Kiruna, Sweden

Kiruna is an interesting little mining town and usually sits under 10ft of snow in January making it a wonderful wintry experience.

Seeing the lights is a hit and miss affair and viewing is dependent on the weather and sufficient solar activity. Take a taxi to other side of the ski slopes to see the lights.

  • Book a cold room in the Ice Hotel in the village of Jukkasjärvi near Kiruna from £131 per person per night. Alternatively Simply Sweden offers a three-day package including return flights to Kiruna and Ice Hotel accommodation from £775 per person.

Web Links

Space Weather - A good resource for tracking the Northern Lights.

Have you seen the Northern Lights? Where did you see them? Do you have any recommendations to see the Northern Lights?

If so, let us know by leaving a comment in the box below or share your thoughts with other 50connect readers.

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