By: Wendy Perrin
Northern Lights •Travel • Destinations
We’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the northern lights—where to see them, when, and how. There are three prerequisites, it has to be dark, the skies have be clear, and you have to be under the auroral oval. The best countries for seeing the northern lights are Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada (north of the 60th parallel), Alaska and, to a lesser extent, Sweden and Finland—but there’s a lot of guesswork involved. It’s a question of maximizing your chances.
The aurora borealis can be seen from September through mid-April, when the earth’s magnetic field attracts charged particles thrown off by the sun, the result of solar storms. The particles form a halo around the magnetic pole, the so-called auroral oval. The phenomenon is most visible from November through February, when nights are dark and below-freezing temperatures result in clearer skies. The farther you are from city lights, the better. Wherever you go, plan to stay at least three or four nights and to combine light-chasing with other activities, such as skiing, sledding, snowmobiling, ice-fishing, and visiting reindeer herders. The following intel should help you plan an extraordinary experience of the northern lights.
Norway is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights, and one of the best places in Norway is the town of Alta, on the northern coast, where the world’s first scientific aurora borealis observatory opened in 1899. The town has good infrastructure, it’s easy to travel to, and it’s not too cold. 100% of the travelers he has made Alta arrangements for have ended up being in the right place at the right time to see the northern lights. The best time to go is January through March, when snow cover is good.
Iceland is colder than Norway and prone to wandering low pressure, but a magnificent landscape makes up for the often harsh and unpredictable weather. Small towns in the southern countryside are a good base.
Greenland is a good choice for travelers who prefer not to brave the dark and cold of deepest winter. A September cruise through the world’s largest fjord system guarantees icebergs, tundra hikes, Arctic wildlife, and stunning landscapes, and there’s a good chance you’ll see the northern lights.
Northwest Canada sometimes gets displays of northern lights in September, but its fall weather isn’t ideal (cold, rainy, windy). If you rent a car in Whitehorse, you can visit museums by day instead of biding your time at a country lodge until it gets dark. January and February in British Columbia are ideal for skiing, dogsledding, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling, plus you have a good chance of seeing the northern lights.
Alaska gets good light shows in Fairbanks from mid-February to the end of March, when temps are starting to rise and the weather is clearing. The city hosts the month-long World Ice Art Championships during this time.
Finnish Lapland sees the northern lights about 200 nights per year, or roughly every other clear night. The glass igloos at Kakslauttanen have see-through roofs, so you can potentially view the northern lights from your bed.
Sweden boasts the Aurora Sky Station, a mountaintop observatory reached by the country’s longest chair lift (Arctic gear is provided), and a wide range of winter activities. At the latest rendition of the Icehotel, which melts each spring, you can sleep snuggled up in an artist-designed room sculpted from river ice.
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