Where is the Best Place to see the Northern Lights? – The simple answer is there is no best place!
It’s the question we are asked more than any other“where is the best place to see the Northern Lights?”
Many destinations promote themselves as being the very best place on the planet for viewing the Aurora whilst others (perhaps wisely) choose to remain closely guarded secrets. We thought we would delve a little further and see if we could come up with a definitive answer by asking three of Northern Scandinavia’s top Aurora Hunters.
Over the years, these guys have spent thousands upon thousands of hours under dark Arctic skies tracking down the Northern Lights to the delight of their delighted clients.
They live in The Aurora Zone, they work in The Aurora Zone and they have an intimate and almost uncanny understanding of this most remarkable of Mother Nature’s spectacular wonders.
Our guide Trygvor picked us up at the hotel and before leaving we poured over the latest meteorological charts downloaded from the local Weather Centre’s website just 30 minutes earlier.
“It’s not a great night for the Aurora” was our guide’s very frank and somewhat disappointing summation “but, if we head south away from the clouds then we will find the Northern Lights”.
With renewed vigour, we jumped into the warmth of Trygvor’s car and headed out of town. As we drove south away from the Arctic Ocean we were told to keep our eyes peeled, not on the Arctic firmament but the roadside.
The travel industry gives out a lot of awards, but the British Travel Awards (BTAs) is one annual ceremony which really stands out and is generally recognised as being pretty much the travel industry's Oscars. So, imagine our immense delight when The Aurora Zone scooped the Best Small Holiday Company (adult only) a couple of weeks ago.
The BTAs are the only travel industry accolades voted for exclusively by the travelling public. There is so much competition for these awards and to be recognised by our happy clients who obviously voted for us in droves is a fantastic and very satisfying experience.
We established The Aurora Zone in 2011 when we realised that NASA was predicting great things from the Northern Lights and that interest in this most remarkable of Mother Nature's many wonders had never been stronger.
Solar Maximum – You Have Not Missed Out!
The sun's magnetic field changes polarity approximately every 11 years. It happens at the peak of each solar cycle as the sun's inner magnetic dynamo reorganises itself. On 06 December 2013, NASA predicted that the sun’s polarity would flip sometime in December which would herald the peak of the current Solar Cycle 24. This peak in the sun’s activity is known as the ‘Solar Maximum’.
Solar Maximum is the period during which the Northern Lights tend to be at their strongest and most frequent.
At the time of writing (30 Dec 13) and despite reports to the contrary in certain parts of the media, NASA has not yet announced that we have reached Solar Maximum.
A recent trip to the Nordland Archipelago once again raised the thorny issue of the impact a full moon has on the Northern Lights.
To be honest, the whole discussion has left our Norwegian friends somewhat bemused and howling at a full moon for somewhat less traditional reasons.
As always, I’d made sure that I arrived in good time for dinner and as we sat down, I mentioned to my hosts that both the auroral and weather forecasts boded well for some Northern Lights spotting later that evening.
“But there is a full moon, you can’t possibly see the Northern Lights when there is a full moon!!” came the response dripping frustration and sarcasm in equal measure.
There is a myth perpetuated on the internet that you cannot see the Aurora Borealis when there is a full moon, it is nonsense and it’s driving the locals mad. Look at the night sky, it is vast. Look at the moon in the night sky, it is tiny.
The essence of it is that a full moon will only diminish your viewing pleasure if it is directly behind a low intensity Aurora which is often not much more than a somewhat underwhelming smudge of green light.
Every time we talk to our partners in The Aurora Zone they are increasingly exasperated by this fiction, so much so that it became a running joke during my recent trip to Norway. As we stood outside the restaurant later that evening gazing at the Aurora Borealis shimmering across the Norwegian firmament, one of my hosts turned to me and whispered,“Of course, you can’t see those lights you are looking at, there’s a full moon!!”. So, if only to save our Norwegian partners from further exasperation, please don’t believe everything you read about the Northern Lights and a full moon.
We’re often asked “when is the best time to travel to Northern Scandinavia?” and it is very difficult to provide a concise response. A quick straw poll amongst my colleagues revealed a diversity of responses to what is evidently a highly subjective topic.
Some are fascinated by the midnight sun and savour the warmer temperatures of summer whilst others prefer the stunning autumnal colours of September, known locally as “Ruska”. Unsurprisingly, there was a big call from the parents in the office voting for either the December magic of mid-winter, February half term and Easter.
Personally, I always head to Finnish Lapland somewhere between mid-March and early April and, in many a conversation with the locals, it seems that they too favour this time of year.
Late March to early April is a time of change and renewal in Lapland. You get the best snow of the winter because by now, it has been falling for anything up to six months. The perfect snow provides the perfect canvas for warmer temperatures and stunning ice-blue skies that stretch endlessly away over the forests and still frozen lakes to a far and distant horizon. The air is as pure as anything you could ever hope to breath and the days become almost visibly longer. Yeah!
Forget that myth about it being permanently dark above the Arctic Circle; by mid-March it is light until around 9pm and Aurora hunters have to go out increasingly late for their Northern Lights fix.
Nevertheless, my experience is that is worth waiting for darkness to fall because the great thing about March and early April is that the improving weather very often means less cloud cover and it is cloud cover, not a full moon, that every Aurora hunter hates. Add in a theory that the sun is more active around the spring equinox and you have a pretty good time to head north.
If you do, you may very well see me there too. Give me a wave as you pass me driving a team of dogs through the snowy forests or ice fishing on a frozen lake surrounded by pristine and perfectly silent nature.
Most importantly, once darkness has fallen, try not to bump into me or anybody else for that matter because it is all too easy to do when your gaze is fixed skywards.
You could say that the Northern Lights have become Lapland’s equivalent to mobile phones; nobody these days seems to be able to take their eyes off them regardless of where they are walking or heading. So, no matter when you travel, make sure you watch where you’re stepping as you marvel at those overhead lights.
Cloud cover is the Aurora chaser’s worst enemy.
If the sky is cloudy you won’t see the Northern Lights, simple as that. However, this is also one of the reasons that Abisko in Swedish Lapland is one of the very best places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis.
In terms of topography and meteorology, Abisko is blessed by a happy combination of favourable winds and cloud-dispersing mountains which work in tandem to create some of Northern Scandinavia’s most cloud-free skies.
I work for a Tour Operator called The Aurora Zone and one of the best aspects of my job is searching for the Northern Lights.
We’re sometimes asked for statistics regarding the frequency of displays of the Aurora Borealis in the destinations we feature and unfortunately, we have to reply that statistics on the subject are pretty meaningless. Basically, across the Auroral oval, the Lights appear around 200 times per year regardless of whether you are in Finland, Sweden, Norway or Iceland.
However, it is impossible to make any long term predictions as to which of the 200 days will yield results and which of the remaining 165 (or 166 during a leap year) will not.
Finland Northern Lights. Image Antti Pietikainen
I must apologise if the title of this missive sounds like a football coach drilling his players about finding space and remaining focussed but movement and shape are key when it comes to the Northern Lights.
Movement and shape. Credit: Antti Pietikainen
The vast majority of Auroras are green, very often myriad shades of green but multi-coloured displays are rare.
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