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.
Both NASA and the Goddard Space Centre have announced that the Sun’s polarity has finally flipped. Don’t worry; it sounds dramatic, but this is a natural, recurring phenomenon and totally harmless! The flip in polarity heralds the peak of Solar Cycle 24 and signifies the mid-point in this particular Solar Maximum (the period when the Northern Lights are historically at their most frequent and spectacular).
Basically, what the experts are saying is that half of the Solar Maximum is behind us but the other half, very possibly the better half, still lies ahead.
Two of the NOAA/NASA Solar Cycle Prediction Panel’s leading panellists believe that the current solar cycle will start to decline in 2015, but note that their own research suggests that major solar flares and noteworthy geomagnetic activity normally occur as a solar cycle declines.
The midnight sun in Scandinavia means that the Northern Lights won’t be visible until late August and early September. So when is the best time to go?
Image: Markku Inkila
It may seem slightly strange but here at The Aurora Zone, we can’t wait for the end of summer.Yes, summer is lovely with warm, sunny days and long hours of daylight but therein lies our problem....daylight, there is simply too much of it.
Late last summer we speculated as to whether the 2014/15 Northern Lights season could match those of the previous two years which had delivered some unforgettable displays.
In June 2014, NASA confirmed that the Sun had reached the peak of its current solar cycle and, rather excitingly, geophysical research suggested that the declining period of a solar cycle often coincides with significant solar events. There's nothing that gets an Aurora hunter more excited than increased solar activity so we thought we would ask a couple of the best in the business to review the season so far. It seems that it has more than lived up to expectations.
Markku Inkila lives near Ivalo in North East Finland and is, without any doubt, one of Scandinavia's most knowledgeable and enthusiastic Northern Lights guides. We asked him to sum up the season using his own words and a couple of images:
This autumn was crazy, 12 nights straight and we saw the Northern Lights every night. During the winter we have seen lights every clear night and that is awesome! There has been lots of talk about solar maximum that was supposed to be last year and the year before, but the thing is that we are in the middle of the "aurora zone" so it doesn't matter what year it is, we see them nearly every day when it's clear sky.
Forget Fifty Shades of Grey, what gets us Aurora hunters all steamed up are myriad shades of green.
Green is the predominant colour in the Northern Lights and whilst the science that determines the colours in the Northern Lights isn't quite as racy as E. L. James's erotic romance novel, it's worth looking at what causes the Auroral colours.
When charged particles from the sun collide with the atoms and molecules that constitute the gases in the Earth's atmosphere those atoms are said to be "excited" and as a result, they give off light. The colour of that light is determined by the type of gas involved in the collision.
Are you still with us? Bet you read Fifty Shades of Grey for longer than you did this blog!
Most commonly, the sun's particles hit our atmosphere at altitudes between 75 miles and 120 miles where Oxygen predominates. When the atoms in Oxygen are "excited" they give off green light and hence, the majority of Auroral displays are different shades of swirling, twirling, shimmering, dancing green light.
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