The Northern Lights: mystical, ethereal ribbons of light that grace the night skies of the world’s northernmost locations. In Finnish lore, the lights were sparks from the tail of the fire fox sprinting across the snow. Ancient Estonians believed them to be horse-drawn carriages carrying heavenly guests to a radiant wedding in the sky. Icelandic legend has it that a pregnant woman who looks at the lights during childbirth will produce a cross-eyed baby.
Unfortunately for the romantic stargazer in all of us, there’s a scientific explanation for this celestial fluorescence. It occurs when the charged particles from the sun collide with atmospheric gases at the earth’s poles. Though this may take some of the fun out of imagining the aurora’s origins, it certainly doesn’t take the fun out of witnessing them firsthand. Here are some tips on how to see the Northern Lights and when to catch them at their most spectacular.
When to See Them
Though summer is a popular time to travel, it’s not the optimal season for viewing the Northern Lights. The first ingredient of a stunning display is darkness, and places in the auroral zone see very little of it during the summer months. Instead, try traveling between September and April, when the skies are dark and relatively cloudless.
Active periods can occur anytime within the dark hours, though most of the action tends to happen between 10pm and 2am. Keep in mind that the aurora is a cosmic phenomenon with a mind of its own. It does not own a wristwatch, nor does it value punctuality. It may choose to join the party or it may hide like a frightened feline under the bed. For your sake, hopefully the former.
Where to Go
If it starts with an “S” and ends with a “candinavia,” odds are it’s a great place to catch a glimpse of the good stuff. However, Scandinavia isn’t the only region for prime aurora viewing. Parts of Canada, Russia, Greenland, and anywhere else in or near the Arctic Circle are good bets as well. Below are four of the best places in the world from which to hunt the elusive lights.
This is the holy grail of aurora hunters. Its location in the middle of the auroral zone means that of the 212 nights a year that are dark enough to see them, the Northern Lights are visible an average of 159 of them. The polar desert of Abisko has the most clear skies of anywhere in Europe, thanks in part to its 43-mile Lake Torneträsk that helps create the Blue Hole of Abisko: a patch of sky that stays cloudless despite surrounding weather conditions. You can even catch a cable car up Mount Nuoljo to the Aurora Sky Station, where there’s a café and lookout tower.
Go to the Arctic Circle. Now go 214 miles farther north until you hit Tromso, where November plunges the town into a Polar Night that doesn’t end until April. This eternal darkness plus the mild coastal climate (averaging 23°F in the winter) equal one ideal aurora-watching destination.
Saariselkä is Finland’s northernmost ski resort and the perfect place to get away from the lights of the city. With its bounty of large lakes and fells (barren, mountainous lands), it’s a winter wonderland by day and a snow-carpeted celestial coliseum by night. Consider staying at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, tailor-made for aurora hunters, with glass igloo-inspired rooms to let guests keep an eye on the sky without having to brave the frigid temperatures.
Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Truthfully the entire country is prime Northern Lights real estate, but seeing them in the middle of UNESCO World Heritage site is the cherry on top of an already loaded sundae. Mountains, glaciers, lava fields, ink-blank skies, and shimmering celestial lights—what could be better? Those who don’t trust their own aurora instincts may want to rely on someone else’s by signing up for a tour. Try the Northern Lights Mystery Tour (September through April), which takes you outside the glow of the city to hunt for the sometimes-skittish lights. Be sure to book this for your first or second night in Reykjavik, because if the tour operator cancels due to inclement weather (or if you just don’t see the lights!) you can take the tour again free of charge.
Tips for the Trip
- Pack clothes that will keep you nice and toasty in sub-zero temperatures.
- Take a nap—or three—the day before your adventure so you’ll have the energy to stay up.
- Get away from the light pollution of the city.
- Altitude is your friend. If there’s a climbable mountain nearby, climb it.
- Seeing the Northern Lights can be a waiting game, so take a deep breath and enjoy the experience.
- Check aurora forecasts. Though they don’t guarantee a sighting, they track factors like solar rays and wind speed to help predict when you might catch a glimpse.
- Consider booking a tour. Most places famous for their views of the Northern Lights will have tours that take you to the best viewing areas.
- There are no guarantees when it comes to seeing the lights, so prepare for the chance that they simply won’t appear. Have other activities planned to make your trip worthwhile.
- Give yourself at least three nights to hunt for the aurora.
- Try to avoid planning your trip to coincide with a full moon, as the moonlight can be so bright that it blocks out the aurora.
- Bring a thermos of something warm to drink.
Taking a Great Photograph: What You’ll Need and Why
- A sturdy tripod (and a remote control). A tripod will keep your camera steady—and your photo blur-free! Taking the picture with a remote control is just as important to keep the camera from moving, though a self-timer (at least 2 seconds) is also fine.
- Manual setting ON, flash OFF! The automatic setting is great in daylight when your camera can sense and measure its surroundings. At night, however, your camera can’t see and thus can’t focus. And the flash? You worked so hard to get away from any light pollution—you don’t want to ruin that with a flash!
- An ISO of 1600 (you can play around with this). The higher the ISO, the less light you need to develop your photo. Often, though, a higher ISO means a grainy photo.
- A camera capable of taking a long exposure (5-20 seconds). The shutter speed, or exposure time, is the amount of time your lens is open and taking in light. Your camera shows the sum of the sky’s activity over that time frame, so if you try something really long, like 60 seconds, your camera may pick up star movement. The shorter the exposure time, the more your photos will show what your eyes actually saw.
- An aperture (f-stop) of f/2.8 or as low as you can go. This setting tells you how wide your lens is open to let light through. The lower the f-stop, the bigger the opening. You want the lowest setting (and thus the widest opening) because the more light your camera lets in, the shorter shutter speed you can use for a faster, more detailed shot.
- A wide angle lens (14 -24mm). This will show the scale of the sky and allow you to capture more.
- Adjust your focus during the day. Your camera can not see in the dark, so it’s a good idea to set your focus during the day. If your camera has an infinity setting, use that. If not, focus the camera on a distant object and mark that spot on your lens rim and barrel with a piece of tape so you can find it later.
Additional Photography Tips
- Avoid moving your camera in and out of your warm bag, as the extreme temperature changes may damage it.
- Bring extra batteries! When it’s really cold out, batteries die quickly.
- Throw an extra memory card into your camera bag so you can shoot as much as you want without worrying about running out of space.
- Consider finding a creative subject for your foreground. Tilt your camera down to include a mountain or forest or lake.
Above all, be safe on your trip! Use caution in the cold, snowy conditions and have your patience and sense of humor at the ready. As always, go-today is here to help every step of the way. Happy hunting!