Chasing the northern lights
Witnessing the Northern Lights takes both a little astronomical forecasting and a bit of luck.
Solar max and the lights
During solar max, the sun’s magnetic poles shift, causing an increase in sunspots and solar flares. These flares expel radiation and charged particles toward earth in clouds of solar wind. As this wind enters the earth’s atmosphere, the radiation interferes with radio, satellite and electrical devices; the charged particles collide with gaseous molecules in the earth’s atmosphere. Once they collide, a phenomenal reaction occurs, creating an unusual, colorful light display, simultaneously, at both of the earth’s northern and southern hemispheric poles. The reaction is called the Northern and Southern Lights, or Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis.
When and where to watch
The Aurora is viewed best on clear, dark nights, away from city lights or moonlight, from late September to early April and between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time. Scandinavian countries above the Arctic Circle are the best locations for witnessing the Northern Lights:
Sweden – Abisko National Park, Kiruna and the Swedish Lapland are definitely the hotspots. The Abisko’s Aurora Sky Station is touted as possibly the best place for viewing; a chairlift takes you to the observation tower. Spaceport Sweden also offers flights to try to see the lights from high in the sky. For accommodations, check out the ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi or IGLOOTEL in Arvidsjaur.
Norway –Tromsø, Kirkenes, Svalbard and Alta top the list. Stay at Kirkenes Snowhotel or Alta’s Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel and take a Husky safari, sledge or snowmobile excursion. Several cruise lines offer special Aurora excursions; try Hurtigruten, Transun and Fred Olsen Cruises for deals and pricing. You may even see a polar bear or two in Svalbard, Norway’s most northern tip. For more information, visit www.visitnorway.com and www.nordicvisitor.com.
Iceland – The whole country is a good place to see the lights, but the most popular are outside of Reykjavík and in Thingvellir National Park. Look for boutique hotels in rural areas, such as four-star, luxury Hotel Rangá. For more hotel ideas, search www.i-escape.com/iceland/boutique-hotels. A lot of these hotels will also give you wake-up calls or alerts when an Aurora appears! Go to www.northernlightsiceland.com for viewing ideas: during whale watching, from a glacier, while soaking in the Blue Lagoon hot springs, on a self-driven tour and more.
Finland – Saariselkä, Kilpisjärvi and Inari are the best northern locations in Finnish Lapland; two exceptional places to stay are the glass igloos of Hotel Kakslauttanen in the Saariselkä fell and Lainio Snow Village’s Snow Hotel near Ylläs and Levi. Go to www.visitfinland.com for winter activities while in beautiful Lapland.
Greenland – Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut are both top-rated viewing locations. Book a tour to watch for the lights, then take a dog sled and tundra tour, go ice fishing or on a sightseeing flight. Visit www.wogac.com and www.greenlandtravel.com.
Denmark – On clear days, the Northern Lights can be seen in areas along northern coasts and in the Faroe Islands. However, these islands receive a lot of rain during the year, so forecasting is important to find the clear night skies perfect for viewing.
Scotland – In the U.K., the Northern Lights are called “Merry Chasers.” Your best bet is the Orkney Isles and remote locations of Dunnet Head, John O’Groats and the Highlands near Sutherland.
Spaceweather.com, www.geomag.bgs.ac.uk and aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk map the astronomical forecast and track conditions, plus send you text alerts after solar flares, when conditions prove right or if Northern Lights are witnessed.