See the Northern Lights

Lonely Planet Travel Editor Tom Hall is on a mission to discover 52 of the most awe-inspiring places to visit across the world. This week he discovers the wonders of the Northern Lights.

Northern Lights

‘No pencil can draw it, no colours can paint it, and no words can describe it in all its magnificence’ Arctic Explorer Julius von Payer, 1876.

Deep, dark polar nights hold a secret for those willing to brave the cold and make the pilgrimage. If you’re very lucky and very far north, you might just see the legendary northern lights, nature’s greatest firework display, dancing across the sky and illuminating the winter’s night.

What are the Northern Lights?

But let’s start with the science. The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis (Aurora being the Greek goddess of dawn and Boreas referring to the Greek name for the north wind) are an atmospheric phenomenon caused by charged particles from the sun colliding in the upper atmosphere.

The effect is generally a greenish light, with red and yellow elements on occasion flickering across the night sky. This description, however, does not do justice to the magical experience of viewing an Aurora storm. An evening watching the Northern Lights is one of the most fantastic moments a lifetime’s globetrotting can provide.

How can I see the Aurora Borealis?

Getting to see the Lights is a great challenge and a marvellous adventure. Auroral activity takes place year-round, but for much of the year it’s not dark enough for the Lights to be visible.

November to February offers good conditions. Even after making the long journey north there are still no guarantees. Many Aurora-hunting trips end in disappointment.

To succeed, you need luck, for three other things need to be right too: the sky needs to be clear, there should be a new moon and, as the name suggests, you need to get a long way north.

Where are the best places to see the Northern Lights?

Northern Norway, especially around Tromsø, Lapland, Iceland and the mountainous northern part of Sweden, are all excellent places to see the phenomenon. In many areas snowmobile or husky trips out of town are offered to maximise viewing potential.

Passengers on the Huritgruten Coastal Steamer linking Norwegian coastal towns and fishing villages during winter stand a great chance of spotting the Lights.

Interestingly, the North Pole is too far north for regular auroral activity. For similar reasons, Svalbard has less Northern Lights sightings than northern Norway.

Wherever you go, you need to get into areas where there’s little or no artificial light. Some locations, such as the famous Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, also offer cabins with skylights designed for Aurora-spotting.

The sister to the Aurora Borealis, the Aurora Australis, is the light show visible in deep southern latitudes. You need to get to southern Patagonia or Antarctica to stand a chance of seeing the lights, and go between June and August.

Further information

Individual destination tourist information sources are the best places to plan a trip: Visit Norway, Visit Sweden, Visit Finland and Ice Tourist.

For more on the lights themselves, Michigan Tech University is the definitive online resource.

© 2009 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd