The Northern lights are magic. I am convinced.

Yes, there is a scientific reason behind the phenomenon, explanations that make sense of all the rays and patterns of colors, factors you can take into account to maximize your chances of seeing them, which is covered below in this article, but, to me, they are magic

The Aurora Borealis, as it is scientifically called, is definitely one of the ultimate experiences in any travel or adventurer’s bucket list. It is the holy grail of nature. Sometimes you have to travel a bit far, you never know for certain if they will appear, conditions are often colder than most people are used to, but the quest makes it all the more rewarding when you are finally treated to its splendor.

Having said that, let’s get you to them. As stated before, there is no guarantee you will see them, but there are many tips to greatly improve your chances. Northern lights are visible up to 80% of all clear nights in these locations, a great excuse to get yourself here!

What causes northern lights?

When you see an aurora in the sky, what you are actually seeing are solar particles entering the Earth’s atmosphere giving off different colored lights from colliding with burning gasses.

The different colors and patterns correspond to different types of ions or atoms being activated when entering the atmosphere and affected by earth’s magnetic pole. Depending on the height and type of ion being affected, different colors and patterns can be seen. The visible colors are a result from a combination of what type of atom is involved in the collision and how high up it is occurring:

  • Green and orange-red: Involves oxygen emissions
  • Blue and red: Involves nitrogen emissions
  • Height of collision also affects colors seen. Blue and reds occur below 60 miles, where oxygen is less common. Green occurs in lower attitudes, and is also the most commonly seen color to the naked eye, visible between 60-150 miles (100-240 km). Above 150 miles (240 km) ruby reds appear.

Where can you see auroras?

Norway is a very popular place to go to seek out this phenomenon, and rightfully so. The country is prominently situated in the northern light oval, the area which has the best chance of seeing them in combination with ideal weather conditions to boost your chances of viewing even higher.

In Norway the best locations are:

  • Tromsø – It is an easily accessible town and has tons of excursions and activities to keep you busy.
  • Finnmark and Kirkenes
  • Skibotn – A little south of Tromsø, the dry climate and remoteness of location increase viewing chances.
  • Alta – Very North in Norway, clear blue skies and mountains shielding external light frame the sky for light activity.
  • Svalbard – As high as you can get in Norway, completely surrounded by glaciers and ice with virtually no light pollution from the town; it is one of the best places to observe the more faint day aurora

Another popular way of observing the auroras is to take a cruise (like The Hurtigruten Coastal Express).

Northern lights Norway
Enveloped in neon green. Photo Credit: Gaute Bruvik, Flicker.com

Best time of the year

The northern lights season runs from late August to mid-April, with the best chances of viewing in September- November, and February-March. Between the autumn equinox and spring equinox there are more hours of darkness in the sky, from 6pm till 1am, which maximize the chances to view the polar activity.

What time of day?

The highest activity peak time is between 10pm-11pm. However, auroras have been spotted as early as 4pm and as late as 4am. Usually expeditions start around 6pm, keep very observant till around 10pm and enjoy the polar activity till around 1 am.

Weather conditions

Ideal weather conditions for seeing aurora activity include cold, clear, cloudless skies. You want little to no light pollution from neighboring cities, and to avoid a full or large moon.

That means with Norwegian weather patterns, the latter part winter (February-March) is usually better than the beginning.

Disclaimer

There is no guarantee you will see the Northern Lights even if you plan for the perfect conditions, but the excitement and experience you will have being on this aurora adventure make seeing the lights the cherry on top of an already spectacular trip. Happy hunting!

  • DN

    None of the pictures by Dan Nordal are from Tromso. They’re taken 800 km farther east in Pasvik near Kirkenes in Finnmark. Wrong city and wrong county.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for the correction, DN. I’ll update the captions! 🙂

      • DN

        Hi,

        Thanks for being willing to update the captions. You still haven’t done it though 😉