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It’s not easy to feel small in a world determined to keep us all connected all the time. But spend an evening staring slack-jawed at the Northern Lights and you’ll quickly be reminded of your place in the universe.
The Northern Lights are famously tough to find. Pair the specific weather conditions that need to occur for them to appear with how difficult it can be to get away from light pollution, and you’re in for an adventure. But there are a handful of destinations around the world where aurora-hunters are more likely to encounter this natural phenomenon.
For your best shot at seeing the Northern Lights this year, head north to the Arctic Circle as early as the last week of August, depending on the destination. It’s the beginning of aurora season, when it stays dark for longer and longer stretches of time, increasing the likelihood of a wild light show.
What are the Northern Lights?
Also known as the aurora borealis, this phenomenon occurs when a solar flare penetrates the Earth’s magnetic field and shoots charged particles into the atoms and molecules that make up our atmosphere. The bursts of colorful light you see are actually the colliding particles and atoms. The various colors you see indicate what types of atoms and molecules are interacting.
Green, pink, yellow, blue and purple are the most common colors you’ll see during a Northern Lights show. But particularly intense flares can manifest as orange or white. According to space.com, particles colliding with oxygen will produce green and yellow, while nitrogen results in red and violet. And sometimes, the lights will only appear as a faint color filter across the night sky — barely a shimmer on the horizon. Part of the fun is the unpredictable nature of this hunt.
How to photograph the Northern Lights
If you’re planning on capturing the light show with your iPhone camera, think again. Unless you’re lucky enough to catch some seriously strong collisions, you’re going to need some equipment, including a camera, tripod, a wide-angle lens and even a flashlight.
Camera: Don’t depend on your phone camera for this task, no matter how powerful the lens. Any DSLR camera with a manual settings option will do the trick.
Tripod: You’ll need a steady surface to take photos of the Northern Lights, as your f-stop (aperture) will be set at a minimum value. The smaller the value, the more light your camera will let in during the exposure. This helps capture as much of the Northern Lights’ movement as possible. All of this being said, you don’t want to be moving your camera around while this is happening, or you’ll blur the image.
Wide-Angle lens: Not a requirement, but the best way to capture a stunning pro-quality shot of the horizon.
Flashlight: One trick I learned while trying to find the Northern Lights in northern Finland was to bring along a flashlight. If you want to take portraits in front of the Northern Lights, specifically, you’re going to need to light up your subjects. As soon as you click the shutter, shine the flashlight toward your subjects, at the ground, and then back at your subjects.
Now that you’ve got the basics of photographing the elusive Northern Lights, on to the spots where you can best see them around the world.
When to visit: Late August to mid-April
Getting away from light pollution is simple all across Iceland. With only two major cities — Reykjavík and Akureyi — you’re a 15-minute drive from the perfect viewing spot almost anywhere in the island nation. There are an overwhelming number of tours available for travelers seeking the Northern Lights. While a large number of them are bus tours, there are a few that stand out from the crowd: Special Tours’ Northern Lights by Boat experience, camping on Mount Esja and a Super Jeep tour (which can get you to remote areas in the Central Highlands), to name a few. Remember, if you’re flying from the US, chances are your flight is overnight. Keep an eye out for the Northern Lights as you pass over Greenland and get closer to Iceland. You really can’t beat seeing them from an airplane.
Where to stay: Located on an old geothermal energy site, the Ion Hotel is designed around the surrounding views: large wall-sized windows open up to the surrounding mountain range. But the best view might be from the outdoor geothermal pool underneath the hotel. Hotel staff will even call and wake you up if the Northern Lights are out, upon request. Located about an hour’s drive from Reykjavík near the Golden Circle in Thingvellir National Park, it’s a drive worth experiencing to get away from the city lights. If you want to stay in town, book a room at the Hilton Canopy Reykjavík.
The best resource: Iceland’s Met Office meteorology website does a great job at tracking all things weather-related. The aurora tracker even shows cloud coverage across the country, as well as a forecast for how likely it is you’ll catch the Northern Lights on any given day. There are a lot of apps that say they’ll alert you when the lights are making an appearance in your location, but unless you’re constantly updating the app, chance are it isn’t accurate. (I’ve personally used one for years, and it will constantly alert me when the lights are out during broad daylight — not especially helpful.)
When to visit: Late August to mid-April
When the Northern Lights are especially strong, you could catch a glimpse anywhere around the state. But if you’re looking for a sure sighting, consider Fairbanks, Anchorage or Brooks Range. Fairbanks is known as the most reliable location for spotting the aurora borealis, and the best times to see them are generally between 11:30pm and 3:30am. As it gets later in the year, that time range shifts from 12:30am to 4:30am. Consider a Northern Lights photography workshop with Aurora Chasers or an overnight Aurora Chaser tour with The Mushing Co-Op that will take you to your yurt accommodation via dogsled. Whether you’re looking to brush up on your nighttime photography skills with professional photographers or have a completely private view of the show, these two tour operators will get you away from the crowds and into the wilderness.
Where to stay: Even if you’re going to bed down in a yurt, consider making Fairbanks your home base if either of these tours sound like your ticket to the Northern Lights. There are a number of points hotels here.
The best resource: Much like Iceland’s weather website, the online forecast from the University of Alaska Fairbanks details how likely it is you’ll see the aurora borealis — and where. There’s also a scale of 1 to 9 demonstrating the strength of the solar activity.
When to visit: September to early April
Northern Norway is where you’ll want to travel if you want to see the Northern Lights. Tromsø, one of the country’s northernmost cities, is right in the center of the aurora borealis zone. Make like TPG himself and book a private tour with Tromsø Safari for your own guide and driver (the folks at Tromsø Safari are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly, and can bring you to several different viewpoints for a variety of photo opportunities).
Where to stay: Stay in a traditional lavvo, or temporary Sami dwelling, at Crystal Lavvo, where you’ll find yourself far, far away from light pollution. Travelers will be driven to the Lyngen Alsp for dinner and enjoy a quick photography workshop before tracking down the Northern Lights. After a night in your lavvo, you’ll pack up for the beautiful drive back to Tromsø.
The best resource: The NorwayLights app was created by the experts at Visit Norway, and it’s a super simple interface with information around the forecast and also the cities were you’re most likely to see the lights. Think of it as a forecast, itinerary and super guide to use while you’re killing time waiting for the auroras to show up.
When to visit: Late August to April
According to Visit Finland, the Northern Lights are out and about approximately 200 nights of our the year. You’ll want to head to Finnish Lapland — a region bordering Russia, Norway and Sweden — for your best chances.
Where to stay: In a small town called Rovaniemi, you’ll find 37 treehouses built for the sole experience of gazing at all of the beautiful nature around you. Each suite at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel is located on a steep slope and features panoramic windows. Need we say more?
The best resource: Add your location to the My Aurora Forecast & Alerts App and you’ll receive real-time alerts when the probability for Northern Lights is spiking. It will also show you the top locations for viewing the aurora across the world at any given time.
When to visit: September to March
Similar to Finland, you can see the Northern Lights throughout the Swedish Lapland region. You usually won’t catch sight of the lights in Southern Sweden, so plan accordingly — and dress warmer than warm. The best part? Sweden’s weather is a tad bit more mild than its Scandinavian neighbors. Consider venturing to the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko National Park, a popular spot for aurora borealis enthusiasts. The station is located nearly 3,000 feet above sea level in an area clear of light and sound pollution. Here, you can take a Night Visit Tour, which will bring you up to the station on a chairlift (the incredible mountain views are a highlight). If you take the night visit tour, you’ll be equipped with warm overalls for Northern Lights spotting, as well as a guide.
Where to stay: Another great location for northern lights viewing is the Icehotel in Kiruna, where TPG’s news editor, Emily McNutt, tried to catch the auroras during a four-hour snowmobile safari excursion. Though the weather wasn’t in favor of a Northern Lights sighting on that particular, the tour did guarantee a hot meal by a crackling fire in the Swedish wilderness.
The best resource: Don’t let the scant website turn you away — locals and travelers who have spotted the lights will tell you the same thing: The personal alerts from Soft Serve News are the real deal. For just over $3, you’ll gain access to immediate aurora alerts as they’re happening. You will also receive updates on potential future solar activity, outlining three-day forecasts for when the weather is looking ideal for a sighting.
When to visit: August to May
Compared to other destinations, there are a lot of places you can see the Northern Lights in Canada. Head to the Yukon, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Alberta, Nunavut, Newfoundland or the Northwest Territories for your best chance at catching the show.
Where to stay: The highlight of Aurora Village — a Northern Lights-focused community — may be the heated (!) outdoor seats designed for spending hours outdoors waiting for (or admiring) the auroras. The seats even spin 360-degrees for optimal viewing. The entire village comprises 21 teepees, each with its own wood stove. When you aren’t checking the skies, you can snowshoe, learn how to lead a dogsled or take a trip down the property’s giant snow slide.
The best resource: The Northern Lighthouse Project is aimed at raising awareness of local weather, the Northern Lights and other space-related phenomena. Each lighthouse works on a color system: flashing blue signifies low solar activity; flashing green means the geomagnetic field is quiet and auroras could be expected; and flashing red indicates that there has been a recent solar flare that could spark vibrant auroras.
When to visit: September to March
Surprise! Northern Scotland shares the same latitude as some Scandinavian locations, meaning there’s a good chance you could spot the Northern Lights here, if conditions allow. Orkney, Caithness, the Moray Coast, Aberdeenshire, Lewis, Haris, Skye, Applecross, Lochinver, the Cairngorms, Galloway Forest Park, Rannoch Moor, Perthshire, Angus and Calton Hill are a handful of aurora-viewing destinations recommended by Visit Scotland. The Northern Lights have also been known to make an appearance as far south as Edinburgh during especially strong storms. If you really want to fit in, refer to the Northern Lights as “Mirrie Dancers” for local cred.
Where to stay: The Isle of Skye is a dark sky enthusiast’s dream. With nine Dark Sky Discovery Sites in the area, it’s the perfect spot for stargazing and checking out the Northern Lights. The Shulista Croft Wigwams all have an incredible view of the Trotternish Peninsula. The only thing second to the views may be the local wildlife: You can spot sheep, rams, chickens, sea eagles, buzzards and minky whales all within walking distances of the property.
The best resource: AuroraWatch UK Alerts will send real-time alerts via Twitter, Facebook or the messaging app Telegram. The site also offers an AuroraWatch API, showcasing historical data you can (theoretically) use to build your own alerts.
Photo by RelaxFoto.de / Getty Image.
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