What are the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are born on the Sun. Electrically charged particles are catapulted off the surface of the Sun in the aftermath of powerful solar storms. Some of these particles travel towards Earth. When they reach the planet, they are conducted along the protective magnetic fields towards the magnetic North and South Poles. In a ring-shaped pattern around the magnetic poles, the particles encounter the upper layers of the atmosphere. In a process identical to the one that occurs inside a fluorescent light, energy is released as light that we can observe from the Earth. Most Northern Lights “displays” take place at a height of around 100 km above the Earth’s surface.
What do they look like?
The Northern Lights appear in a range of shapes: as billowing “curtains”, as undulating ribbons and as rolling banks of smoke. They are usually bright electric green in colour, often with a slim pink stripe on one side. Occasionally, the Northern Lights explode in a corona, with rays shooting in all directions across the entire sky in shades of green, violet, white and pink.
Outbreaks small and big
Minor “outbreaks” of the Northern Lights often appear as a belt towards the north-west that can remain in the sky for a long time. A corona usually takes place right above our heads, but is over quickly. Red Northern Lights are occasionally seen, but only when they are visible at lower latitudes – which is a very rare occurrence.
Northern Norway, in the heart of the Northern Lights belt!
The Northern Lights belt stretches along the coast of Northern Norway from Lofoten to the North Cape. This means that Northern Norway is the perfect place to observe this natural phenomenon. In fact, the Northern Lights are more commonly seen here than anywhere else in the world. Svalbard (Spitsbergen) is a little farther from this belt, but here you can see the daytime Northern Lights in mid-winter.
Clear skies essential!
Weather conditions also play an important role as clear skies are essential. The regions further inland generally have a more stable climate with more cloudless nights, but when the cold eastern winds blow in the winter, conditions are clearest along the coast. Svalbard has an Arctic desert climate with excellent conditions to view the Northern Lights.
When during the day can you see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights can appear at any time, but they usually grace the sky between 6 o’clock in the evening and 1 o’clock in the morning.
- It is rare to see the Northern Lights before 18. 00/6pm, even during the dark months.
- The highest frequency is around 22. 00–23. 00/10-11pm.
- If you see the Northern Lights at 19. 00/7pm, there is a good chance that they will reappear several times.
- After around 1 o’clock in the morning, your chance of seeing the Northern Lights diminishes.
- In Northern Norway, the Northern Lights appear almost every night. Occasionally, however, they are so faint that you cannot see them from the ground.
The Northern Lights are faint and ethereal, so they cannot compete with neon and car headlights. Therefore, find a place without light pollution. City lights disrupt your night vision.
- If you are in a town, find a dark area or a high vantage point.
- If you are close to a town, find a place north of the built-up area as the faint Northern Lights typically appear in the north of the sky.
- A full moon can also outshine the Northern Lights.
- However, photographers of the Northern Lights appreciate some other source of light such as a house or a crescent moon. So the area does not have to be completely dark.
When during the year is it best to see the Northern Lights?
- The Northern Lights are a phenomenon that is best seen in autumn and winter.
- Throughout the period from 21 September (the autumn equinox) through 21 March, it is dark here after 18. 00 – i. e. for the entire “good period” of the day. This means that you have good chances all through this period.
- Chances of clear skies are highest towards the end of this period.
- You may also be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights during the “shoulder periods” from the end of August to the end of September, and from the end of March until the middle of April. However, the nights are shorter during these periods, which means that your chances are slimmer.
Things you can do to see the Northern Lights
It is hard to wait around for 6–7 hours in the freezing cold in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. To maximise your chances, you can, for example:
- Join an organised Northern Lights tour, where shelter and warm clothes are included. Choose the tour that lasts the longest and ends the latest.
- Some operators organise mobile Northern Lights tours by boat, car or minibus, which gives you a better chance of encountering clear skies. Again, the duration is of importance. The longer, the better...
- Take part in dog-sledding, scooter trips and sleigh rides in the evening. You will be sure to have fun – along with a front-row seat if and when the Northern Lights appear.
- Check the weather forecast, rent a car and drive to a place where you have the best chance of encountering clear skies. Ask the staff of the local tourist information office to suggest a route.
- Rent skis and go skiing on an illuminated run, or strap on a head-light and follow a signposted trail. This will help you stay warm, even though you are out under the night sky.
- The Hurtigruten ships have wonderful viewing lounges. Choose a Hurtigruten trip that involves night-time sailing between wonderful destinations in Northern Norway – this is a Northern Lights opportunity in itself!
- Our experience: be active at night!Having accompanied guests on the hunt for the Northern Lights for many years, we have noted a couple of points:
- It is best to come in the period December–March. Stay as long as you can in Northern Norway – this will boost your chances!
- As far as possible, make sure to be outside at night between 18.00 and 01.00, either on an organised tour or on your own.
- Don’t let bad weather put you off.All of a sudden, the clouds may part and reveal the Northern Lights in all their glory!
- Be flexible and switch between coastal and inland locations depending on the wind direction.
This and that about the Northern Lights:
- Galileo Galilei named the Northern Lights aurora borealis, which means “the northern sunrise” because at lower latitudes appearances of the Northern Lights are often red in colour.
- In addition to Northern Norway, the Northern Lights belt runs over Iceland, Southern Greenland, Northern Canada and North Alaska.
- The Northern Lights are regularly observed in Southern Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Scotland, as well as on the prairies of Canada and the USA. On rare occasions, the Northern Lights can be seen as far south as Italy and Mexico.
- The Southern Lights are exactly the same phenomenon as the Northern Lights and can be seen on Antarctica and from the Antarctic Sea. On rare occasions, they can be observed from the South Island of New Zealand and on Tasmania.
- The very special and fainter daytime Northern Lights can be observed on Svalbard in mid-winter. This is because it is dark all day there.
- The green colour is caused by solar winds reacting with oxygen at a height of around 100 km.
- The pink stripe in the Northern Lights is caused by the Northern Lights reacting with oxygen at even greater heights.
- Violet shades are attributable to reactions with nitrogen, often at lesser heights.
- The Northern Norwegian poet Petter Dass (1647–1707) mentions various things about Northern Norway in his works, but not the Northern Lights. It is likely that the Northern Lights never appeared during his lifetime.
- Kristian Birkeland introduced the modern Northern Lights research from the Haldde peak in Alta. You can see his picture on the Norwegian 200 kroner notes.