Travel Bucket List – Northern Lights

The northern lights is probably one item that I would imagine is high on anyone’s travel bucket list. The majority of us don’t live within the Arctic circle, and seeing a band of coloured light in the sky is a rare privilege.

I failed in my first attempt to catch the northern lights over 7 years ago, mostly because it was a last minute wish list item added on during the trip. I was in the Arctic circle (Tromso in Norway) for just one day, and I signed up for a tour (expensive as you can imagine), but didn’t get to see anything.

This time round, I made sure I did all the homework prior to planning my itinerary. I discovered however, that, though there is quite a bit of information out there, you won’t have a very clear idea on what you need to do exactly to gain the best chances of seeing the lights. One reason for this is that there is so much commercial value attached to seeing the northern lights that many options (i.e. tours) are made available. So, this is what this article is about, i’m going to tell you exactly what to do to see the northern lights.

The good news is, you have very good chances of seeing the northern lights. I managed to see it at a time when there was very little solar activity (more on this later). It didn’t look anything like what you see in photos, like i had wished for, but it was good enough for me to strike the item off my bucket list.

Prior to seeing the lights, i always imagined them to only appear momentarily like a wisp of smoke, but the truth is, they stay around for quite a while, long enough for you to take plenty of photographs. This is why i say you have very good chances of catching them. So what do they look like to the naked eyes? Like clouds in my case, when they’re not particularly intense (plus there was light pollution from the full moon). And that’s also another misconception i had. I thought the slightest light pollution will render the lights invisible. The truth is, you just need to be a small distance away from city lights.

The almost full moon, plus the lighting from the hotel didn’t affect render the northern lights invisible. Sure, the lights were less awesome, but you gotta be thankful that you can still see them

So lets begin with the most important question. Where should you go to see the northern lights? Iceland. I say this not because i saw the lights in Iceland, but i think Iceland is the best holiday destination that allows you to see the lights and still fill your day time with other activities. Obviously, you can only see the northern lights at night, and usually the suggested best timing is between 9pm to past midnight. It would be a waste of time and money if you had nothing else to do in the day time. Sadly, this was the case in Abisko, Sweden, where i have also gone to in the hope of seeing the northern lights. I went at a time when the day time tours have either just ended their season or have not yet started. Anyway, i was hesitant on joining any of the tours in Abisko, because they are so expensive! Iceland, on the other hand, has enough places for you to explore on your own.

Another reason why Iceland is a good choice, is because it is actually easier to see the northern lights there, according to this chart (Iceland is just outside the Arctic circle by the way):

The Kp index is a measure of the intensity of the geomagnetic activity in the sky. As you can see from the chart, the lines are slanting. This means, towards the western side (where Iceland is), you need a lower intensity in order to see the lights as compared to the places on the eastern side. This may be just a slight advantage for Iceland as compared to Scandinavia, but it helps nevertheless.

When should you go? Generally September till March, when the night time is really dark. If you can go at short notice, you could even monitor the aurora forecast and just book a flight to go when strong solar activity is predicted. Any strong activity happening on the sun can reach earth in 1 to 3 days. Here’s a good, brief explanation on how the prediction works.

Most of us can’t just go at short notice, and the weather can be unpredictable anyway. If there is thick cloud cover, then your chances of seeing the lights are ruined. I doubt most of us would bother, but the one thing you can actually plan for is to avoid the full moon using the moon phase chart. Another thing to consider is whether you wanted to avoid snow. My feeling is that snow adds quite a bit of hassle, and it would be better without, which means, for Iceland, you might want to go before mid December, or earlier. For Scandinavia though, to avoid snow probably means going before mid November. The bottom line is, just go, making sure you stick around those places where the northern lights are visible for a week or so, and the rest is down to chance.

How do you organize your trip to see the northern lights? You don’t need to join a tour, and no tour can promise you that you will see it, because the northern lights is a completely naturally occurring phenomenon that is beyond human control. This is not to say that joining a tour is a bad idea. If you don’t drive, you may need a means of transport that a tour provides to take you away from light pollution. A tour also tries to make it as comfortable as possible for you while waiting to see the lights, such as providing you shelter, warm clothing or even a hot drink. A tour can also be in the form of staying in a specially designed accommodation like the glass Igloos in Rovaniemi. All the aforementioned options are, of course, exceedingly expensive.

For the budget conscious ones like myself, the best way is definitely to have a rental car. Stay in the more rural areas (practically anywhere in Iceland other than Reykjavik). If possible, stay in a place that has large windows, so you can observe from indoors. One idea that i tried that didn’t work so well was waiting in the car. With the engine turned off, the window fogged up quickly. And it wasn’t very comfortable sitting and waiting in the car really.

I managed to see the northern lights when i was staying at
Fosshotel Núpar. It was a lone hotel in the middle of nowhere – perfect location. Moreover, the rooms had large windows, and each room had a door that opens up to the outside so you can quickly go out when the northern lights are sighted. You can say my wish came true when the northern lights did show up exactly where i was hoping it to.

It took a while to get the correct focus through manual adjustment on my DSLR camera (quite an old one, maybe a present day camera will be able to focus correctly on its own). This was a six seconds exposure, slightly blurry, but mission accomplished.

I became very familiar with the prediction indicators after looking at them everyday, and it is a good idea to understand how they work. If you’re in Iceland, you should look at this website, but the same website would work for Scandinavia as well, because the same readings apply across the northern hemisphere. The Kp index gives you an overall sense of how likely you may see the northern lights. I saw the lights when the Kp index was around 2 to 3, and the Kp level is most often at around 2 to 3 anyway. The other important reading (according to someone anyway) is the Interplanetary Magnetic Field (Bz). It has to be negative for you to see the lights. Finally, the very useful aurora forecast map tells you the likelihood of seeing the lights where you are (and i noticed that when there is any chance at all it often includes the whole of Iceland, which is another reason why i suggest trying in Iceland).

Note that this is just a probability prediction. It does not mean the northern lights are there. If the location where you are is not highlighted at all, then you can more or less forget about even trying.

All the best in your quest!

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