Photos don’t do the northern lights justice.
To fully appreciate the glory and grandeur of this celestial display, which is also known as the aurora borealis, you have to settle beneath the ever-changing lights and watch them curve and curl, slither and flicker. Here’s how to see the northern lights.
The first thing to appreciate is the glowing sky lights can be spectacular — or they can be a fleeting event. Robert Steenburgh, the acting lead of the Space Weather Forecast Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has never seen the northern lights despite having studied them and related phenomena for more than 20 years. That’s not for lack of trying, as he once went on an aurora-focused trip to Yukon territory in Canada.
“It wasn’t really very visible to the naked eye, although people with adequate cameras could see it,” Steenburgh told Space.com, referring to cameras that can take long exposures to see faint things in the sky. “There was no geomagnetic storm going on [on the sun] at the time, so it was pretty low-key.”
But for those who are lucky enough to catch a strong display, the shimmering lights can appear like curtains, like pulses of jets or like other light-show phenomena — all available above your head, for free.
For best results, you can blaze your own trail somewhere along the “auroral zone” that encircles Earth’s northern reaches. But you need to know when and where to go. For example, the summer may be a good time for a vacation, but a better time to see auroras is actually between winter and spring.
Read on to find out when and where to see the northern lights, and what powers this dazzling display.
When to go
The northern lights are more formally known as the aurora borealis, and are caused by interactions between the solar wind, which is the stream of charged particles emanating from the sun, and the Earth’s magnetic field.
If you’re planning an aurora-viewing trip, try not to schedule it in the middle of summer. You need darkness to see the northern lights, and places in the auroral zone have precious little of it during the summer months.
The good news is that the sun’s 11-year cycle of activity has just picked up and we will see more sun spots, flares and coronal mass ejections going forward than in the previous years. Coronal mass ejections are the most powerful source of charged particles emitted from the corona, the sun’s upper atmosphere. When the sun shoots these geysers of plasma in the direction of Earth, wonderful auroras can be expected.
“There will continue to be aurora viewing opportunities in 2022,” Steenburgh said. “The solar cycle is indeed ramping up and as solar activity increases, so do the chances for Earth-directed blobs of plasma, the coronal mass ejections, which drive the geomagnetic storms and aurora.”
But it’s not just the solar weather forecast you need to monitor to have the aurora experience of a lifetime. You also need clear, dark skies, emphasizes Charles Deehr, a professor emeritus and aurora forecaster at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, whose guide to aurora viewing has lots of great information. Winter and springtime are generally less cloudy than autumn in and around the northern auroral zone, so planning a trip between December and April makes sense. Ideally, time your trip to coincide with the new moon, and make sure to get away from city lights when it’s time to look up, he added.
“Dress warmly, plan to watch the sky between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time, although an active period can occur anytime during the dark hours,” Deehr wrote in the guide. “Active periods are typically about 30 minutes long and occur every two hours, if the activity is high. The aurora is a sporadic phenomenon, occurring randomly for short periods or perhaps not at all.”
You can get an idea of how active the northern lights are likely to be in your area by keeping tabs on a short-term aurora forecast, such as the one provided by the Geophysical Institute. One predicting only the next half hour is available on NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Website. Also, a citizen science website called Aurorasaurus gives on-the-ground instant information from aurora enthusiasts wanting to alert the community to new sky shows.
And you can have an aurora experience without even leaving your house if you so choose. The Canadian Space Agency offers a live feed of the skies above Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, during the fall, winter and spring when the sun goes below the horizon.
Where to go in Europe
So where should you go? If you live in Europe, the easiest thing to do is head to the far northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Many local people speak English in those regions and there are lots of tours available.
Iceland is also a good choice, although cloudy skies may make it difficult to catch auroras on any one particular night. If possible, leave yourself extra time to accommodate inclement weather.
Russia does have a decent swath of the auroral zone in the northern regions, but such areas are relatively hard to get to and lack the tourism infrastructure most travelers want. You might get lucky and spot auroras while being in a more well-trodden area such as Moscow or St. Petersburg, given those cities’ relatively high latitudes. But make sure to stay as far away from light pollution as feasible.
Here is a list of European provider of aurora-watching trips
Visit Tromsø sells aurora-watching trips around the city of Tromsø in Norway. The largest urban area in Northern Norway and the world’s third largest city above the Arctic Circle, Tromsø lies just within the Northern Lights Oval, the region above Earth’s geomagnetic North Pole where aurora displays are most likely to occur.
Visit Tromsø sells ‘aurora chases,’ dynamic night hunts for aurora displays in the aurora season between September and April, and slower-paced ‘experiences’ such as dog-sled and boat trips and overnight stays at aurora hotspots. Tromsø can be accessed by plane from Norway’s capital Oslo; adventure seekers are sometimes rewarded by an aurora display during their incoming flight.
Lights over Lapland sells a range of aurora-watching packages that take skywatchers to Sweden’s northernmost region, Lapland. Lapland straddles the border between Sweden and Finland, with both sides offering excellent aurora viewing opportunities in winter months and the midnight sun experience in summer. The Finnish part of Lapland is famously the home of Santa Claus.
Lights over Lapland operates on the Swedish side of the border with most of its tours aiming for Abisko National Park (not far from the Esrange Space Center where the European Space Agency runs rocket tests and operates satellite-tracking antennas).
“Abisko has developed a reputation for being the No. 1 aurora-watching destination on the planet, due to the fact that it is located in a very special microclimate with less precipitation than any other location on Earth that is located within the aurora zone,” photographer Chad Blakley, who is a co-founder of Lights over Lapland, told Space.com via email.
In 2018, the company released footage from a spectacular all-sky aurora during a geomagnetic storm that occurred on March 14 of that year.
Guide to Iceland sells a range of aurora-watching packages on the North Atlantic island, including bus tours, boat tours and hunting trips. Situated just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland provides a decent chance of catching the Northern Lights during winter months. If that doesn’t work out, you can instead relax in the island’s powerful natural hot springs and outdoor pools.
Viatour operates evening aurora-watching trips from Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. The bus tour takes tourists across the island to its most popular aurora spots. The operator says that those who don’t get to see the northern lights during their trip can join again at no additional cost.
Where to go in North America
There are also plenty of options for good aurora viewing in North America. While far-eastern Canada tends to be cloudy, the shore of the Hudson Bay, the northern Canadian towns of Yellowknife or Whitehorse, or the west coast of Alaska are usually good bets. (The city of Fairbanks itself can be a great choice for seeing northern lights without needing to go too far in the wilderness.)
Alaska Tours offers a range of packages from one-day trips to week-long tours that take visitors past the Arctic Circle to the heart of Alaska’s wilderness, where the chance of catching the glowing auroras is among the best in the world.
Aurora Borealis Yukon runs one-day to five-day aurora-watching trips in the Yukon territory in northwestern Canada. A direct neighbor of Alaska, Yukon offers pretty much the same aurora-observing conditions during the winter months.
Northern Lights Tours provides similar services in the Northwestern Territory, focusing on areas around the territory’s capital, Yellowknife.
In the east, Churchill Arctic Adventures offers trips to Churchill, Manitoba, on the western shores of Hudson Bay. The company operates dedicated ‘aurora domes,’ heated cabins and other outposts in the boreal forest that allow visitors to observe the magnificent lights in perfect comfort. If the aurora doesn’t show up, then perhaps some of the polar bears residing in this region may.
Can you see aurora from your home?
The “standard” aurora, observable in the Arctic regions, is generated by the solar wind, which flows toward Earth constantly. But geomagnetic storms, caused by coronal mass ejections (CME), can ramp up the northern lights considerably and make them visible over much wider areas. In late October 2021, for example, a powerful CME allowed skywatchers at much more southern latitudes, including Nevada, South Dakota, upper Michigan and New Hampshire, to enjoy spectacular aurora displays. In the U.K., photographers snapped stunning images in Scotland and northern England.
As the solar cycle intensifies, such occurrences might become more common (or rather, slightly less rare).
“There is a relationship between the strength of a geomagnetic storm and the extent of the aurora toward the equator,” Steenburgh said. “Stronger storms produce stronger auroras, and drive them further toward the equator.”
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has some advice for catching auroras outside the regular aurora zones on its web site, in addition, it provides information about the relationship between the strength of the geomagnetic storm and how far toward the equator it might spread, Steenburgh noted.
Yet even the most powerful geomagnetic storm will fail to deliver the experience unless other factors cooperate — a cloud-free sky, not too much moonlight, nighttime hours and absence of light pollution. (City-dwellers have to get out into the countryside for an aurora experience no matter how strong the geomagnetic storm supercharging the sky might be.)
What drives auroras
The northern lights result when charged particles streaming from the sun collide with molecules high up in Earth’s atmosphere, exciting these molecules and causing them to glow.
“The key is you get energetic particles — things like electrons and protons — injected into Earth’s atmosphere along magnetic field lines, that are part of Earth’s magnetic field,” Steenburgh said. “They impact our atmosphere, and those interactions determine the colors.”
The different colors of the northern lights come from different molecules: Oxygen emits yellow, green and red light; while nitrogen is responsible for blue and purplish-red hues.
Earth’s magnetic-field lines channel these solar particles toward the planet’s north and south magnetic poles, which explains why auroras — the aurora borealis and its southern counterpart, the aurora australis — are high-latitude phenomena.
Indeed, the aurora borealis is visible most nights, weather permitting, within a band several hundred miles wide that’s centered at about 66 degrees north — about the same latitude as the Arctic Circle.
The southern auroral ring lies above Antarctica and is very difficult for skywatchers, or anyone else, to get to. That’s why this article focuses on the northern lights — for reasons of practicality, not antipodean antipathy. But during the recent powerful geomagnetic storm that delivered northern lights to the U.K, and parts of the U.Sskywatchers in Australia and New Zealand got treated to a very rare southern lights display.
There is also a mysterious, aurora-like brightening phenomenon in Earth’s atmosphere called “Steve” that isn’t attributable to aurora, although scientists aren’t sure of its cause. Finnish researchers have also been tracking dune-like shimmering lights that appear to be linked to gravity waves and oxygen atoms.
Earth isn’t unique in hosting auroras.
The huge gas giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) each produce their own auroras, due to their magnetic fields and thick atmospheres. However, the colors of the gases change because of differences in each planet’s atmospheres and magnetospheres.
Venus and Mars also have auroras, of a sort. The Venus Express mission found that solar wind interactions with the planet’s ionosphere form a “magnetotail” that generates an aurora when the accelerated particles hit the atmosphere. Mars has local auroras over magnetic fields in its crust, as well as a larger, northern hemisphere aurora generated from solar energetic particles hitting the atmosphere.
Editor’s note: If you capture an amazing photo of the northern lights and would like to share it with Space.com and our news partners for a story or gallery, send images to email@example.com.
This story, originally posted in April 2016, has been updated for 2021.
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