An easy guide to where and when you'll see the greatest displays of the northern lights
In Norway they were the spirits of dancing old maids. The Finns call them revontulet (‘fox fires’), from a fable about a creature sweeping snow skywards with its tail. The Algonquin Indians thought they were Nanahbozho the Creator lighting fires as a reminder of his eternal love.
Myth and mystery have long encircled the aurora borealis. Today, we know their origins are more prosaic. They’re not heroes battling or the torches of the dead but rather the result of atmospheric gases crashing into charged particles from the sun. Blown our way by solar winds, these particles are largely deflected by the earth’s magnetic field. But the field is weaker at the poles, particles sneak in and collisions occur. The result: a celestial spectacular above our planet’s extremes.
Colours vary. Most common is yellow-green, produced by oxygen molecules bumping about 100km up; rarer red displays result from collisions at 300km. But knowing the science almost doesn’t matter: when you see them glimmer for yourself, you’ll still believe in magic.
Where: Abisko, deep in Arctic Sweden, is one of the world’s northern lights hotspots. Set in a rainshadow, it’s Sweden’s driest (and thus most cloud-free) locale, and is well away from any light pollution. Chairlifts run up Nuolja Mountain to Abisko Sky Station for the best 360° views; you can borrow aurora overalls to keep you warm too. Alternatively, seek out any area of high-latitude Swedish wilderness, away from the towns: perhaps the Tornedalen region (which offers snow-sports aplenty) or the tiny village of Porjus in Unesc o-listed Laponia.
When: Possible Sept-Apr. Dec-Feb offers the darkest skies, though there’s often more auroral activity Sept-Oct/Mar-Apr. Most often seen 10pm-11pm.
Where: The Lapland towns of Rovaniemi, Ivalo, Oulu and Kuusamo all have airports, and make excellent launch pads for aurora-watching in the wilds; it’s reckoned there are around 200 auroral displays a year up here. Good spots include cabins on the shores of Lake Inari, the Luosto’s Aurora Chalet (where guests are given ‘aurora alarms’, which beep when the lights appear) and the glass-roofed igloos at Hotel Kakslauttanen, where you can gaze up at the aurora while staying toasty in bed.
When: The lights are visible Sept-Apr. According to Dr Esa Turunen of the Sodankylä Geophysical Observatory, “During the most cloud-free weeks of January and February the chances of seeing the lights can be 100% during a three-day stay.”
Where: The aurora does flicker over the UK, albeit unpredictably, and often obscured by cloud. The lights have even been seen in the south of England, but the best bets are the far north, moreremote regions of Scotland, where they call the lights the ‘merry dancers’. Try the Hebrides, where there are few streetlights and the fresh Atlantic winds help keep the skies clear. Or head for the rugged Caithness Coast or the Orkneys, where light pollution is low.
When: January is considered the best month, though sightings are possible throughout autumn-winter. Lancaster University’s Aurora Watch UK offers a service where you can sign up for alerts by either Twitter, SMS or email when activity is likely: aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk/alerts
Where: The Great White North has no shortage of prime boreal wilderness in which to aurora-watch. Some areas of northern Alberta proclaim a 90% success rate for seeing the lights while the vast Yukon is another good region. In Yellowknife, you can get a daily forecast for the aurora activity: astronomynorth.com. In Whitehorse, there’s an Aurora Centre (good views, plus an interpretation centre) while, 40 minutes away, the cabins at Lake Laberge offer a cosy, unpolluted gazing retreat. Other options include Dawson (Yukon) and Flin Flon, Grand Rapids and Churchill (all Manitoba).
When: Sept-Apr. Most displays occur close to astronomical midnight.
Where: The town of Fairbanks is an excellent aurora compromise. There are more northerly spots – Coldfoot, Fort Yukon, Prudhoe – that see more frequent displays, but Fairbanks still has a high aurora hit-rate and is far more accessible. Also, the northern lights tend to be brighter and more active the farther south they occur, so you might get a more exciting show. Ester Dome, just outside Fairbanks, offers particularly great views of the northern horizon.
When: Sept-Apr; Feb-Mar is best for dark skies and combining lights-hunting with daytime activities.
Where: If you get away from the lights of Reykjavík, then Iceland – situated in one of the most active auroral regions – offers some great sky-gazing. The country is well set up for it too. For example, Hotel Rangá in the island’s rural south is run by a northern lights expert; staff will wake you if the displays are good. It’s also possible to consult the Icelandic Met Office (en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora) for an aurora forecast (graded 0-9, 9 being maximum activity) and a cloud-cover forecast, so you can focus your search on areas where the skies will be most clear.
When: Sept-Apr. Avoid days either side of the full moon.
Same phenomenon, different pole: the aurora australis is the southern equivalent of the northern lights.
They are much harder to see simply because there are fewer landmasses close to the South Pole, and Antarctic cruises – which sail into prime territory – run only during the bright austral summer months when skies aren’t dark enough for sightings. To see the southern lights sparkle, you need to be around during the chilly months (Mar-Sept).
One of the best places to try to glimpse them is Stewart Island, New Zealand; its Maori name, Rakiura, translates as ‘glowing skies’, possibly a reference to the aurora. Head to Stewart in winter for long hours of darkness; the island is sparsely populated, so it’s easier to get away from streetlights and enjoy unpolluted skies.
South Georgia is a good option, though only really accessible during the austral summer months; you might be lucky enough to see the lights on a March visit. The Falkland Islands, though further north, do experience auroral activity and are easier to visit during the key Apr-Sept period. Ushuaia, Argentina – the world’s southernmost city – is a possibility, though is prone to cloud: you need a little luck to see the lights sparkle here.