My quest to see the Northern Lights began in September 2011 and we’ve been chasing them every winter season since. I had literally just left from visiting Tim while he was living in Iceland and the very next night the Northern Lights danced for a week straight. They were so bright and so active, they even kept him up at night. After Tim raving about how incredible they were, I just had to see for myself.
I got my first chance just three months later when I spent five nights in Rovaniemi, Finland on the Arctic Circle. And for five cloudy nights, I eventually went to bed after watching the sky until the wee hours of the morning.
Then Tim and I traveled to Svalbard in March of 2012. At 78° North and just 600 miles from the North Pole, we were actually above the Aurora Belt. We spent four nights watching for the elusive Aurora. Finally, on our second night in Tromso (on the eve of my birthday) the Northern Lights finally made an appearance. But it was cloudy, they were a white-gray color, and they danced for less than an hour. I had seen them, but it wasn’t what I expected and I craved a more spectacular display.
Wanting to ring in the New Year in Reykjavik because of the fireworks display of epic proportions we had heard about, the trip gave us another excuse to go Aurora hunting.
In the weeks leading up to our Iceland adventure and ever since, we’ve received tons of messages, comments, and emails from readers and followers about trips to see the Northern Lights. We don’t want to be a Negative Nancy, but feel it’s our duty to tell you all these five 10 things no one ever tells you about the Northern Lights so you can set realistic expectations for an Aurora hunting trip.
1. Don’t go for the Northern Lights; go for the destination.
In talking to locals, including our new friend The Aurora Hunter, no one in Iceland had seen the Northern Lights in 3 weeks prior to our sighting. Storms had moved in clouding up the night skies and there just wasn’t much activity going on on the sun.
Had we visited Iceland, Finland, Norway or Svalbard only hoping to see the Northern Lights, we’d probably have been really disappointed. Instead, each destination gave us fantastic opportunities to be mushers for the day, go glacier hiking, and look for polar bears on a snowmobile expedition. Your adventure will be a memorable one when you have activities planned that you’re really excited for and seeing the Northern Lights is an added bonus if they do come out to dance.
But, if you really want the best chances of seeing the Northern Lights, head to Abisko. It’s the driest place in Sweden and has the most clear nights of almost anywhere else in the Aurora belt.
2. The Northern Lights are unpredictable.
In order to see the Northern Lights, you need a dark, clear night. They are visible from late August to early April anytime during dark hours, which in places like Abisko or Tromsø can be nearly 24 hours a day in winter. There also needs to be solar flares on the sun or solar wind; the Aurora Borealis happens when particles from the sun enter Earth’s atmosphere and collide violently with gas atoms. There are Aurora forecasts and we even use the Aurora Forecast app for iPhone that will predict the aurora activity level.
But the fact is, the Northern Lights are unpredictable. We’ve had clear nights when the Aurora forecast showed level 4 (high) activity and we didn’t see anything. The Aurora forecast said level 0 (no activity) on the night we saw them in Myvatn, Iceland.
3. It doesn’t have to be cold to see the Northern Lights; it just has to be dark.
Another common misconception people have is that it has to be cold to see the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights are actually active all year round. But because they are only typically visible in the aurora zone between 65° and 72° North, they are not visible from April through August when the aurora zone experiences nearly 24 hours of daylight. People just tend to associate Northern Lights with the cold since they are visible in the winter months, but we have seen them in August in very comfortable temperatures.
Since it does need to be dark in order to see the Northern Lights in the sky, late August/September through the very beginning of April is the best time to go to a destination located in the aurora zone for a chance to see them.
Keep in mind that December isn’t typically the best month because popular Northern Lights destinations like Tromsø, Norway and Kiruna, Sweden have about 70% probability of precipitation each day during the month of December. Precipitation means cloud cover and cloud cover makes spotting the Northern Lights extremely difficult or often impossible.
4. The weather in the Arctic can change in the blink of an eye.
The weather in the Arctic is as notoriously unpredictable as the Northern Lights themselves. It’s not unusual to have sunshine, clouds, rain, sleet, hail, snow and high winds all in the same day. Just because you wake up to crystal clear skies, that doesn’t mean those crystal clear skies will stick around until Northern Lights viewing time once it’s dark out.
And the reverse is true. It was snowing heavily and there was 100% cloud cover when we went to bed on one of the nights we’ve seen the Northern Lights. Which leads us to our next tip…
5. You have to put effort into seeing the Northern Lights.
As we said before, it has to be dark to see the Northern Lights. That may mean you need to get out of the city to avoid light pollution. The Northern Lights are visible in cities like Reykjavik and Tromsø when they are at the strongest, but your best bet is to seek out spots in the Arctic countryside.
Northern Lights tours are great because the tour operators have been chasing the Northern Lights for years and can find the best spots for potential viewing even when there is low hanging cloud cover. Most tour operators will even offer for you to join a tour the next evening if you don’t see the Northern Lights. Viator hosted us on a Northern Lights Cruise with Special Tours and even though our cruise turned into a bus tour because of high winds and we didn’t see the Northern Lights, Special Tours graciously invited every single person on the tour to join them again any night within the next year.
We spent nine nights in Iceland and after New Year’s Eve, all of the remainder of those nights spent staying on Icelandic farms where we could literally walk out our front door to check for Aurora sightings. And that’s exactly what we did; we set our alarm clocks for every hour between 11pm and 2am. As much as it sucks dragging yourself out of your toasty warm bed after you’ve just drifted off to sleep and shocking yourself awake with blasts of cold Arctic air, our diligence paid off one evening.
Just after 1am and after we had gone to bed with heavy snow falling and 100% cloud cover, the wind blew the clouds away and a very faint green glow appeared on the horizon. We quickly threw on warm clothes and headed outside just in time for the Aurora to become active. It was only visible to our naked eye for about an hour, but we watched the green wisp billow and dance in the sky in the howling wind until the very last second that it danced away.
Tip: Some hotels (such as Hotel Berg where we stayed in Keflavik and Hotel Ranga on Iceland’s South Coast) offer an Aurora wake-up call. Be sure to ask at reception as they often have Aurora hunters that will call the night staff to alert them to sightings.
6. Look in the direction north when hunting Northern Lights.
It might sound obvious, but Tim and I had this very argument on our last Northern Lights trip. As we waited for the first signs of the Northern Lights, I told him to look north.
“We’re already in the north, so they can start anywhere,” Tim retorted back.
Not believing me (typical!), I enlisted the help of a Northern Lights guide to confirm that the Northern Lights almost always start from the direction north.
When heading out to hunt for Northern Lights on your own, ensure you know which direction is north. The Aurora is unpredictable and can be very short lived. And when it is dim, it can look like a wispy gray or white cloud so it can also be easy to miss.
Your chances are better if you know which direction to watch. If you don’t have a great sense of direction, just ask a local. The Northern Lights are often as normal as the sun rising to a local and they can tell you which direction they most often appear.
7. The Aurora Borealis appears in a spectrum of colors. Including white-gray.
The unique colors of the Northern Lights are created by the Earth’s spectra of gases and the height in the atmosphere where the collision of particles from the sun and the Earth’s gases takes place. Our naked eye can most easily see the green-yellow part of the spectrum where the sun emits most of its light. Green is the most common color observed but the Northern Lights can also appear white-gray. And a cloudy night if you’ve never seen them before, you might not even be entirely sure of what you’re looking at.
Sometimes the Northern Lights are even present but not visible to the naked eye. We took a photo of some Icelandic horses nearby our cabin after we thought the Northern Lights had disappeared. We couldn’t see them, but our camera still could.
8. You can see the Northern Lights when there is a full moon.
Yet another misconception people have about how to see the Northern Lights is that you can’t see the Aurora when there is a full moon. We’ve shot the Northern Lights on multiple occasions with a full moon and actually like the effect. The moon illuminates the foreground and produces a much more blue-black sky.
With the full moon, we were even able to capture a Northern Lights selfie when out hunting solo. Without the moon, we would have needed someone else to paint us with a light, which is technique you can use to brighten an object in the foreground of a long exposure photo, making a selfie impossible.
9. The closest the Northern Lights ever come to Earth is 80 kilometers above the surface.
The Northern Lights often appear to shoot out of mountains like lava out of a volcano, yet it’s all just an optical illusion. The closest that the Northern Lights ever come to Earth is 80 kilometers (50 miles) above the Earth’s surface. In comparison, airplanes fly about 10 kilometers above the surface.
The altitude at which the Northern Lights appear has an effect on the color that they display. Different atom collisions in the magnetosphere are what produce the various color spectrum that the Northern Lights appear in. These collisions occur at different altitudes.
Green is the most common color that the Northern Lights appear in and green occurs from 100 – 240 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Blues and violets occur below 100 kilometers and reds occur above 240 kilometers.
10. The Northern Lights aren’t going to disappear.
Our favorite click-bait article title of the last year has been “Last Chance to See the Northern Lights Before They Disappear,” implying that you’ve got to go right now or there’s absolutely no chance of seeing the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights are NOT going to disappear.
Scientists do believe, however, that the Northern Lights brighten and become more visible in line with the sun’s activity. The sun has what scientists refer to as a solar life cycle and it occurs over the duration of about 11 years. The sun is currently approaching its solar minimum, the period of the least solar activity. With less sun spots and solar flares, the ionization and excitation of the particles needed to produce the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis happens far less frequently.
That does mean that now and in the next few years is the best time to go on a Northern Lights chasing trip because the chances of seeing them will decrease. But they are not disappearing altogether.
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Take a look at some of the camera gear we have used and highly recommend for photographing the Northern Lights.