When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?

If we could answer this question we would be rich beyond the dreams of men!

As a naturally occurring phenomenon, the appearance of the Northern Lights is notoriously difficult to predict any further in advance than about two hours before it happens. So much is dependent on solar activity and, whilst we can estimate the number of sunspots that might occur on the sun, we can accurately predict neither when they will occur nor how frequently.

The best we can do is to provide a rough guide based on certain timescales.

Top image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The Solar Cycle - Solar Maximum/Solar Minimum

Our Sun goes through an activity cycle that lasts approximately 11 years and sees it pass through Solar Maximum (highest solar activity) and Solar Minimum (lowest solar activity). The Northern Lights are more prevalent during Solar Maximum, the last of which occurred in June 2014.

Generally speaking, the Aurora Borealis will remain very active for two to three years either side of Solar Maximum which effectively means we’re heading into the period of maximum activity.

There is further research to suggest that more significant solar events occur in the declining period following Solar Maximum which increases your odds of seeing a display from our destinations.

The main factor in determining the colours of any given display is the altitude at which the solar particles collide with gases in our atmosphere. Different gases prevail at different altitudes and in varying concentrations and it is the collision which “excites” these gases that determines the colour of the Aurora.

When observing the Aurora with your naked eye, the colours will differ slightly from the image that a digital camera captures. A digital camera can take a long single image exposure of the Aurora and therefore capture a lot more data in the darkness, much more than our eyes capture. This means the images captured are generally a lot more colourful than what we see with the naked eye.

Image credit: NASA/SDO

The Best Time of the Year

As far as we are aware (and we’ve searched long and hard) there is no definitive research to suggest that any particular time of year brings with it a greater preponderance of Northern Lights. Auroras occur throughout the year but the light summer months render them invisible to the eye so we have to focus on the rest of the year.

All we can do then is rely on our years of experience chasing the Aurora. So, roughly speaking and with absolutely no guarantees, here are our thoughts on the subject.


Credit: Antti Pietikäinen

These are probably the three most popular months for Aurora hunting because they bring long dark nights and plenty of snow to play in during the daylight hours while you wait for darkness to fall.

In the Arctic, January is a time of renewal as the sun reappears above the horizon but it can be very, very cold indeed. Nevertheless, it is sometimes said that the Aurora is more likely to appear on colder nights so perhaps we could recommend January to hardier souls.

Generally speaking, February sees the weather slowly improving and in March, the temperatures begin to rise although it can still get pretty nippy especially at night. A thick, pristine layer of snow covers the ground and, because most of the winter snow has fallen, it could be said that there are less snow clouds overhead to obscure the Aurora.

There is some speculation that the spring and autumn Equinoxes (around 20 March and 20 September) bring greater solar activity. Combine this with slightly warmer temperatures and improving weather (with the possibility of less cloud cover) and you may feel compelled to go Aurora hunting in late-March or very early April. The daylight hours will be stretching out by then so you’ll have to be prepared for some late nights but this can be a very rewarding time of year in The Auroral Zone.

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Credit: Northern Norway

To see the Northern Lights you need dark skies and from early-April until late-August, the Aurora may be blazing across the Arctic firmament but it is visible only to scientific equipment, as the skies are just too light for the human eye to see the show.

Having said that, there is so much to see and do in Northern Scandinavia that 24 hours of daylight is actually rather welcome. From the fjords of Norway to the mountains of Sweden, from the lakes and forests of Finland to the countless geological features of Iceland, these landscapes are rarely better than when they are bathed in the 24 hour daylight of the summer months.

It’s a remarkable thing to sit outside at midnight and still find yourself in broad daylight. That’s why we have set up Artisan Travel to cater for people who want to see Scandinavia and North America during the summer months. From self-drive holidays in Norway, bear watching in Finland, whale watching in Iceland and “once-in-a-lifetime” Alaskan adventures, we hope that www.artisantravel.co.uk will provide all your holiday wishes.

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Credit: Markku Inkila

These are the months we would recommend to anybody who prefers to avoid the extreme cold of an Arctic winter. September brings a fleeting autumn but the colours can be absolutely magical but best of all is that you can often see two Auroras for the price of one.

September and October are usually the only months when the Northern Lights are visible at the same time as the lakes and rivers remain ice-free. The beauty of this is that you will often see the Northern Lights overhead and reflected in open water at the same time. It can be a truly spectacular sight and one that doesn’t occur after the big freeze sets in and the waterways freeze and become covered in the first snows of winter.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the last two autumns have given us some absolutely stunning Northern Lights and 2014 caused one of the very best guides in the business to describe it as “the best in my lifetime”.

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Credit: Antti Pietikäinen

November is very much a time of change in the Arctic and heralds the arrival of the first major snows of the winter. It’s amazing to watch the landscape change so rapidly, it’s as if autumn becomes winter almost overnight. The snow does bring quite a bit of cloud cover but the shorter days also bring darker skies which increases the amount of time during which the Aurora might be visible.

The other thing about November and December is that it’s almost a time of celebration in the likes of Finnish and Swedish Lapland. They just love snow and all things winter like dog sledding and snowmobiling and ice fishing and reindeer pulled sleigh rides and any other number of fun winter activities.

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The Best Time of Day

First and foremost, to see the Northern Lights, the skies must be dark. This immediately rules out daylight hours and, contrary to popular opinion, it is not pitch black in the Aurora Zone for the entire winter. Indeed, despite the sun not appearing above the horizon, even the shortest day, 21 December, brings three to four hours of grey/blue light which renders the Northern Lights invisible to the naked eye.

Once darkness falls, the Aurora can be visible at any time of day, and we have seen them as early as 4pm and as late as 6am (that was quite a night!). Nevertheless, the optimum time seems to be around 9.30pm to 1am and that is when we concentrate most of our searches.

As ever with Mother Nature, these things are impossible to predict but as we head into solar maximum, we expect the lights to appear earlier than usual and much more often.

The secret to seeing the Aurora Borealis is patience. If your snowmobile or minibus or snowshoe search is unsuccessful, then it is very often the people who brave the cold night rather than those who sneak off to a warm bed who have a tale to tell at breakfast time.