If you have a dream travel bucket list, I bet many of you have the Aurora or Northern lights on it. We have all seen many of those magical pictures and videos of green lights dancing in the sky and it immediately ignites a pleasant sense of wonder that we dream of experiencing one day. For its fame, stunning view and uniqueness, this effect is over used in pictures as filters even in locations where you can never see the lights. I keep seeing such fake pictures over and over. This blog aims to capture my research into hunting Aurora that I used to plan my trip to the Scandinavian Arctic North, as well as my experience of seeing them. I will go in detail about all the facts and tips that can help you increase your chances of seeing them.
I spent a week road tripping in the north of Norway, Sweden and Finland, in January 2019, and had my first Aurora experience in Abisko, Sweden. I will also share the Aurora experience from a group of my friends who visited Tromso one week after my trip. They planned the trip getting inspired by our trip and the tips we had for them worked very well, which is added is to give you another real story of Aurora chasing.
The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, is the renowned magical lighting effect caused by solar particles/wind entering the Earth’s atmosphere in the north/south poles. When interacting with the magnetic field of earth, they get ionized creating shades of dancing light in the sky- the usual color is green, but sometimes you can also see shades of purple, pink, orange and blue. I do not want to talk about the science of Aurora, which is fascinating by the way and can be watched shortly here. The focus of this blog is on identifying the most righteous locations and spots to watch this phenomenon in real. Let us get started (:waves:)
There are four major items to find answers for when planning a trip to see Auroras- where to go, when to go, how long to go for and how to increase your chances of seeing them. Keep in mind that Aurora is a very unpredictable natural phenomenon and it is best to be prepared as much as you can to make sure you don’t miss them, especially if you are travelling long to fulfil this dream. Before we tackle the four questions, let us look at three important fact items that helps answer our questions: bets time to see northern lights, best places to see northern lights, cheapest ways to see the northern lights which forms an overall practical guide to chasing northern lights in the Arctic.
Now that we know we can see the Aurora only near the poles, let us look at the major destinations on the planet which are close to the poles. From the above list, item 1 makes it clear that you only have your best chance in countries with destinations near the poles. Sorry for the geography class here, let us take a look at the countries that are closer to the poles:
National Geographic lists the above countries as top destinations for Aurora watching, which is accurate and matches the geography details above. This is important to note and please don’t plan a trip aiming to see the Aurora by seeing pictures of Switzerland and other places edited with lights in it (It really itches me as it is so wrong lol). Having said that sometimes, Aurora can be seen in Scottish highlands, but it is very rare. So if you are chasing Auroras, Arctic locations are your best bet.
We have shortlisted the countries to go for, let us now look into other details to answer our questions- when to go, how to maximize our chances etc. Here are my top tips answering them.
The best time to see Auroras is the WINTER time which is usually between the months of October and March in the Arctic North. Winter is when there is dark and clearer skies for longer duration that maximizes your chance. I personally picked to go in extreme winter, January, when the Arctic North region had about one hour of sun to further increase my chances. So make sure you try to visit during winter as we all know sunny weather obscure the sky view.
From points 2 and 3, it is obvious that this is a natural and unpredictable phenomenon and Weather is the key determining factor of your experience- it can really be your angel or devil. There are two major players:
You see the lights when there is solar activity in your area, which means when the solar particles hit the atmosphere that causes the light effect. For tracking this, scientists create something called an Ovation Map using real time data about the solar winds and forecast it regularly (thanks to advancements in technology). With this map, you can monitor locations from where the Aurora may be visible during a time period. The model also tells us the strength of the predicted Aurora with a metric marked by Kp. Kp> 2 means there is high solar activity in a given area and you will definitely see Auroras if the sky is clear.
We need a clear sky, as non-cloudy as possible to see the lights with naked eye as lights are far above the clouds. Clouds do not let you see it even if there is high solar activity(Kp>2 :wink:). So you would also need some Cloud-God blessing 🙂
Hope I have not scared you away by now with all these details, don’t worry about all the science and details about being an astronomer or a weather expert, there are apps for everything these days. My favourite application that I found handy is the My Aurora Forecast. The interface is easy and shown below. You can choose your location and it shows cloud coverage and solar activity in the area you selected. It shows the Kp value, cloud coverage and even the viewing probability.
Both of these elements are not in our control and hence we can only hope for the weather to be our angel when we visit. Given this, we still can maximize our chances if we stayed in these places for a week to try and find some good weather days. I went for a week and unfortunately/fortunately saw Aurora only one day as it was cloudy almost everyday (:unlucky:). At the same time, when my friends visited just after a week we did, they saw it beautifully with high solar activity in Tromso.
We now know where to book our flights to and also have the application installed and learned how the weather chasing works. You still need to know which parts of the city should you choose to watch the Auroras. This was the biggest part of my research as I already knew I will go to Arctic Scandinavia. I did it the following way.
I spent some time looking at the top Aurora pictures posted on Facebook by travel companies that offer Aurora trips and traced the location of their pictures. You can also check the Instagram hashtags #aurora or #northernlights, but note that many times they only have the main city name. What worked for me the best to spot locations was by tracking pictures uploaded by top photographers in 500pix.com. Believe it or not, this was an epic idea, as many photographers had tagged locations and I pinned them all. In my case, I was going to drive around Tromso, Abisko and through Finland and doing this activity, I had a list of all locations that I would try driving through to chase the Auroras (shared below)
The best advice for someone who do not go on road trip is to really pay for the agencies if you can afford to. These agencies have so many different aurora watching camps in different regions around a city and they have their agents watching the sky. This network makes it easy for them to communicate if Aurora is seen in one place and they will quickly take you to the right places. It is a bit expensive like 100 quid or so per person, so if you can’t afford it you can try hunting yourself by going to right locations.
Having said that, northern Arctic cities are very famous for Aurora and if there is a clear sky you can see them anywhere, a bit outside the city. Weather is really the key player.
Doing all the above studies, I planned a one week road trip in the Arctic North aiming to cover Norway, Sweden and Finland, staying in their major cities Tromso, Abisko and Lyngen. I chose these cities for not just to hunt auroras but also to explore other Arctic adventures during this time. It was pretty cool to drive around in the twilight watching the stunning snow scenery throughout. Here is the road trip route I took during my trip.
Here is a list of all top places I had visited and are known for seeing Auroras. Check each on Google and you will see stunning Aurora pictures.
In the Tromso city, if you climb up the funicular you will get a great view of the city (best city view I have ever seen in my life so far, don’t miss it if you go). If there is a clear sky you will have the same view as my magnet in the travel board.
The Lyngen Alps area is located a bit out of Tromso and is a very nice location in the country side to hunt auroras. This area is filled with Fjords and there are many activities here like dog sledding, snowmobiling etc. There are multiple day excursions from Tromso for all this if you don’t want to go to Lyngen yourself.
I had my first Aurora experience in Abisko, Sweden on the second day of the trip. My friends and I waited for over 4 hours or so before we had this experience. It was very cloudy initially. When I looked at my pictures, I saw I have all moments captured from the beginning of when sky started being clearer and created a short video out of it to give you a feeling of the experience.
I was not lucky to see them in Tromso, but my friends saw them during their chase trip with the company Tromso Safari. I am sharing some of their best shots. They saw the lights around the Fjords, how cool!
Please leave any questions as comments, I will be happy to answer and improve the article fixing if any missing information.