Nothing quite leaves a traveller speechless and emotional than after experiencing the Northern Lights. Here’s the best place to see the Northern Lights.
Simply put, Tromsø in Norway is the very best place to see the Northern lights. So to further increase my chances of seeing the lights, I booked three tours for two reasons. First, you never know what the weather conditions will be and secondly, the amount of aurora activity also varies. Fortunately, for me, I saw them on all three consecutive nights. But, it was during the second night that I felt a strong sense of wonderment at the Earth as the Northern Lights appeared before me.
In the east, an almost tornado like shaped funnel of green light appeared. Quickly changing form directly overhead, it met up with the lights emerging in the west. For a few brief minutes a massive arc of dancing green lights spanned across the dark starry sky. The moment intensified when a rare occurrence of pink began to line the arc, ricocheting back and forth while the brightness intensified, forming swirls directly above. As quickly as they appeared connected in unison, the lights separated and disappeared.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that watching this awe-inspiring phenomena actually brought a tear to my eye. There’s something very powerful in watching how the lights form, shift, and change. Everyone on the tour was gasping with excitement and awe, while jumping and pointing and repeating the words “Wow, look over there!”.
Why is it called ‘Aurora’? How Did It Get Its Name?
The northern lights are just one of several naturally occurring astronomical phenomena called polar lights (aurora polaris) which can be found in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
In 1619, Galileo named the Northern Lights aurora borealis. Aurora from Latin meaning the Roman goddess of dawn and Borealis meaning northern, thus Dawn of the North. In the Antarctic around the South Pole, the lights are known as aurora australis or Dawn of the South.
What is an Aurora?
I can’t explain it any better, so I’ll leave it to the experts on this one.
An aurora forms when charged particles emitted from the sun during a solar flare penetrate the earth’s magnetic shield and collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere. These collisions result in countless little bursts of light, called photons (light), which make up the aurora.
Collisions with oxygen produce red and green auroras, while nitrogen produces the pink and purple colours. This reaction encircles the polar regions of the earth and occurs at an altitude of 40-400 miles (65-650 km) in a zone called the “Auroral Oval.”
The aurora appears in the polar areas because the magnetic field is less powerful, and cannot protect the Earth from the solar flare.
Auroras seen within the arctic circle may appear directly overhead, but from farther away they illuminate the poleward horizon. They can appear in red, green, and occasionally blue, and can sometimes resemble fire. In fact, the Roman Emperor Tiberius sent firefighters to a city that appeared to be on fire from a distance, when in fact it was actually against a backdrop of a red aurora.
For a more detailed explanation and without the scientific jargon, watch this animation.
Where Do Auroras Occur?
The northern lights can be seen from Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Russia. While the southern lights can only be seen from Australia and New Zealand.
Aurora’s can occur at any time of the day, but we can’t see them with the naked eye unless it’s dark. Therefore, it is generally advised to visit these destinations during the winter months.
Interestingly, the Earth isn’t the only planet to have auroras. They have also been observed on other planets that have a magnetic field, such as Jupiter, Saturn, and more recently Mars.
An aurora’s strength is measured using the Kp index system. Starting from 0 (very weak) to 9 (being a major geomagnetic storm with strong auroras visible), the Kp number tells us how strong an aurora needs to be for it to be visible in any part of the world. For example, in Tromsø, Norway, the aurora is visible with a Kp of 0, but in France and Northern Spain, a Kp of 9 is needed. In the southern hemisphere, a Kp of 5 is needed to see the aurora australis and that’s from the most southerly point of New Zealand and Australia’s island state Tasmania. It is no wonder that Tromsø is a top destination for tourist wanting to experience the northern lights.
How Can I See An Aurora?
For most people travelling from within Europe, Tromsø is the best place to see the aurora. Not only does Tromsø offer the best possible chance to see the northern lights, there are so many other great activities on offer including whale watching, dog sledding, fjord cruises, and hiking.
Being in the right location doesn’t automatically guarantee that you will see an aurora. There are three important factors that any aurora chaser must know. Firstly, you need to get out of the city centre. Any artificial light will significantly reduce your chances of seeing an aurora.
Secondly, you need an almost cloudless sky. High cloud, which as you can imagine, sits high overhead doesn’t create too much of a hindrance as most aurora’s are powerful enough to shine through it. However, low cloud is the worst kind. This thicker cloud sits lower in the sky and carries rain and snow which renders seeing an aurora almost impossible.
Lastly, but most importantly, there has to be aurora activity. The peak hours of aurora activity are between 11pm and 2am, however, anytime it’s dark there is hope. Sightings of northern lights have been recorded as early as 8pm and as late as 8am.
Which Company Should I Tour With?
To account for all the factors mentioned above, it’s best to leave it to a trusted tour company. While researching for my trip to Tromsø I had heard that not all northern lights tour companies were diligent and thorough in their research of aurora activity and weather forecasts. I chose the Chasing Lights when a girlfriend gave a great recommendation after her experience with them.
Chasing Lights offer both small and large group tours depending on your budget and requirements. A small group of 12 people will set you back €185 and a larger group of 45 is €110.
While it costs more, my preference was to go with a smaller group for a more intimate experience. This option also includes the use of toasty thermal suits and boots. They may not be very flattering but they certainly keep you warm in the sub-zero weather. Hotel pick-up and drop-off is included plus a lovely hot meal around a bonfire under a starry sky. Travellers with cameras can borrow tripods and get tips on which settings to use to best capture the lights. If your camera lacks the required gusto like mine did, then you can rely on the tour guide who takes digital photos throughout the evening and sends them to you afterwards.
As mentioned earlier, I booked three nights of consecutive tours to account for any bad weather. Each night I saw familiar faces from the previous tour. This made the trip even more special because we formed friendships during our northern lights experiences together.
With any guided tour, it’s the guide that makes the trip special. I can’t thank Julian enough for his passionate enthusiasm. Originally from New Zealand, Julian is experienced in chasing and photographing the aurora australis. After having fallen in love with Norway, he moved to Tromsø where he now shares his passion with people at the opposite end of the Earth. After my first night with Julian, I made sure I was on his tour for the next two nights.
Whichever tour company you go with, be sure to do your research first to avoid disappointment.
Norway should be experienced both in the winter and summer months. During the winter, make sure you also go whale watching and see the orca’s and humpbacks feed on the migrating herring. Then, during the summer head to the coastal towns and take the fjords for some of the best views in the world.
Over to you!
Have you seen the Northern or Southern aurora? Have you visited Tromsø? What other activities did you do?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.