A Guide to Seeing the Northern Lights

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The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon of the most spectacular proportions, and on a clear winter’s night if you’re in the right place (and if you’re lucky enough) you might just witness it.

When Aurora Borealis occurs, the sky fills with luminescent colors (from greens, blue, pinks and silvers) that dance across the sky like waves in the sea, creating the world’s most spectacular light show.

As Wikipedia puts it: “An aurora is a natural light display in the sky particularly in the high latitude regions, caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere. In northern latitudes, this effect is known as the Aurora Borealis (or the Northern Lights)”.

Northern Lights Yukon Canada

For many people, seeing the Northern Lights is one of those ‘bucket list’ (i.e. things to do before you die) items that they’d love to do. Turning this dream into a reality, however, can be a little tricky.

Firstly, you’ll need to get yourself to a place where you can see them (such as Iceland). Secondly (and more decisively), the Northern Lights are notoriously fickle, and won’t show up if the conditions aren’t right.

There’s a very real chance you could end up traveling thousands of miles to a frozen part of the world and not see them at all.

So why would anyone bother making such a trip when there’s the possibility they won’t see anything at all?

The chance to witness such an amazing sight is worth taking this risk for (just watch the video below if you don’t believe me!)

The Best Places to See the Northern Lights

The Aurora Borealis is only visible in certain places around the world.

Many people will tell you that the further north you go, the greater your chances will be of seeing the Northern Lights.

This isn’t completely true, as instead of simply ‘heading north’ your goal should be to head towards the (constantly moving) Magnetic North Pole (which is currently located around northern Canada). Note that the Magnetic North Pole is not to be confused with the Geographic North Pole (which is where Santa Claus lives).

That being said, heading directly to the Magnetic North Pole isn’t a good idea, as auroral displays aren’t particularly strong there.

The optimal point for seeing the Northern Lights is 10 to 20 degrees south from the Magnetic North Pole.

Your chances of seeing the Northern Lights will diminish the further south you go from this point.

Northern Lights

Now that we know what latitude the Northern Lights are most likely to occur at, we can draw a ring around the globe to see what places fall into our ‘target area’.

Northern Canada and northern Alaska fall well within our target area, as does Iceland, the northernmost parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway and the southern half of Greenland. These are the best places to see the Northern Lights.

Also falling within our target zone are parts of the Russian peninsula. While these parts of northern Siberia technically should be a good place to see the Aurora Borealis (latitude-wise), they are extremely cold and inhospitable, and because they’re not setup for tourism they’re difficult to get to and expensive. For these reasons I’m ruling northern Siberia out.

By comparison, Iceland and Lapland (i.e. the northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway) are close to/inside the Arctic Circle, yet are much warmer and far more hospitable than most other places on the same (or similar) latitude, making them ideal for travelers wishing to see the Northern Lights.

Although you can see the Northern Lights in other regions (such as the northern United States, Scotland, Svalbard (an archipelago north of Norway) and central/southern Scandinavia), they occur less frequently in these places.

Therefore, the best places to visit (if you want to see the Northern Lights) are:

  • Tromsø, Norway
  • Abisko, Sweden
  • Saariselkä, Finland
  • Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
  • Reykjavik, Iceland
  • Lake Laberge, Yukon Territory, Canada
  • Fairbanks, Alaska, United States

Planning for Success

As I mentioned earlier, not everyone who makes the voyage to see the Northern Lights actually gets to see them.

As Simon Calder (The Independent’s travel writer) put it: “For any trip to see the Northern Lights, plan in the expectation that the travel gods will prove recalcitrant, and that the heavens will fail to come alive. Assume that you won’t see them.”

Seeing the Northern Lights can be a numbers game. On a two-night trip there’s a strong chance you won’t see anything. Spending a week away will massively increase your chances, although even then you might not see anything.

Because of this, when planning your trip it’s best to pick a place that has other interesting things to do during the daytime so you’ll still get something out of your trip even if the lights don’t make an appearance.

Related posts:

  1. Top 10 Travelers’ Must-Dos
  2. A Guide to Australia & New Zealand

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  • Ed_smith

    Occasionally, very occasionally, you can see the Northern Lights as far South as Colorado!