5 Things No One Ever Tells You About the Northern Lights

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.

A curtain of green and purple streaks across the sky over a hut built of sticks and wood
The Northern Lights streak across the sky in Abisko, Sweden

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.

1. Don’t go for the Northern Lights; go for the destination.

Northern Lights Myvatn, Iceland
The Northern Lights could be visible anytime during dark hours from September to April

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.

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.

Green Northern Lights appear in a flame like pattern above a Sami lavvu in Abisko, Sweden
Northern Lights over a Sami lavvu in Abisko, Sweden

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.

Northern Lights reflect on Lake Myvatn, Iceland
Weather in the Arctic can change very quickly

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…

Northern Lights Myvatn, Iceland
The Northern Lights could appear for minutes or hours

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.

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