Northern Lights are caused by charged particles from the sun travelling through the Earth’s magnetic field and colliding with atoms. This phenomenon only occurs at certain latitudes in a region known as the aurora belt, which sits between latitudes of 65° and 72° North. In Europe, the most common places to hunt for the aurora are Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway – but further afield there are also opportunities to witness the lights in the Canadian Arctic. Recently, activity has been so strong there have been sightings as far south as Northumberland. But this is an exception, rather than the norm.
The Aurora can only be viewed in really dark places, so you’ll need to drive away from any cities and inhabited areas lit up at night. Bear this in mind if you’re considering a trip to cities such as Tromso (Norway) or Reykjavik; both are good bases but you’ll need to get out of town to see any action.
Clear skies and strong activity are essential for displays, but don’t expect to get both on a daily basis.
Northern Lights trips can be expensive (expect to pay in the region of £1,300 for a five day, full-board trip with flights and daily activities), but it’s a better investment to stay for a few days rather than making a quick, wishful dash and being disappointed.
Although most trips are booked long before weather forecasts are released, local reports can be used to determine where exactly in the region you should head to on an aurora hunt. Just be prepared to drive for a few hours!
Coastal areas, such as the volcanic beaches of Iceland and mountain-fringed shores of Northern Norway may have the most dramatic scenery, but they’re not always the best spots for seeing the lights. Cloud cover is often localised, so if skies above appear overcast, try heading further inland where it may be much clearer.
Like anything in nature, viewing the Northern Lights requires a certain degree of patience. Some aurora hunters claim the optimum time to see displays is between 10pm and 1am, but as long as there’s darkness, the lights can occur at any time. If aurora forecasts suggest activity, it’s worth staying outside until the early hours.
If you do plan to stay out late, comfortable clothing is essential. In Finnish Lapland during the mid-winter, temperatures can drop to -28C.
Specialist tour companies will supply guests with thermal suits and even footwear, so it’s worth asking exactly what’s on offer before you travel. Essential items to pack include good thermal gloves, base layers, merino wool socks, hats and snow boots.
The aurora season generally runs from September to March, and the strength of activity varies from year to year, depending on where we are in the 11-year solar cycle (measured by the number of visible sunspots causing energy to be released).
We passed the peak in 2014, but there’s still a great deal of activity predicted this season – although it will gradually diminish in the years ahead, until the next predicted peak in 2022.