In search of the Northern Lights
One of my greatest outdoors ambitions is to see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. I have seen plenty of photographs but despite spending a lot of time outdoors in the north of Scotland (a hotspot for aurora sightings) I have never been lucky enough to see them real-time.
An aurora is defined as a natural light display in the sky – from the Latin word aurora, named after the Roman goddess of dawn. The Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, occur in the northern hemisphere when solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and on impact emit burning gases that produce different coloured lights. (A similar spectacle in the southern hemisphere is known as the aurora australis.) You will know if you see the aurora borealis because the colours light up the dark sky in fabulous reds, greens, pinks, yellows or blues. The lights look like an oval doughnut-shaped area located above the magnetic pole. The best sightings are within the “doughnut” and away from artificial light and moonlight.
The most spectacular displays happen in the northern parts of Nordic countries, Alaska, Canada, Russia and also in Scotland. The northern Scottish islands of Orkney and Shetland are prime spots for seeing the lights. Friends who live there say they have seen the Aurora so often that they don’t always look out of their windows when there are reports of a new one. I have yet to visit Orkney at the right time. During periods of “solar maximum”, as now, they have occasionally been seen as far south as southern England. Displays of the lights are unpredictable and very difficult to forecast in advance.
There are websites dedicated to informing keen sky watchers when the next aurora might be seen. Aurora Watch website and on Facebook and Aurora Service are good for tracking geomagnetic activity of Britain. In the northern hemisphere, the aurora season starts in late September or early October to late March. The lights may be seen at any time during this period, but late October, November, February and March have previously been recorded as the best times. You also need a clear sky, no man-made lights and lots of patience. If you think that conditions are right you need to spend time in one spot keeping an eye on the sky hoping, against hope, that they appear at some point. This autumn I am off on a trip to Iceland and I will be watching out each night for my chance to finally see the Northern Lights. If that doesn’t work, it’s Orkney next. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
6 top places to see the Northern Lights
Sweden: Bjorkliden in northern Sweden is located in a weather shadow of the surrounding mountain range and offers great conditions for aurora spotting.
Iceland: Acclaimed as one of the best places to see the aurora (one of the reasons I’m holidaying there!), the best time to travel to Iceland is in the autumn and winter months. There is even a Northern Lights Bar at Hotel ION (one-hour drive from Reykjavik and close to Thingvellir National Park) that looks on to the snowy landscape outdoors. In fact, most of Iceland, away from the lights of towns, is favourable for sighting the northern lights. A Macs Adventure Scenic Iceland South Coast Drive and Hike tour could be the perfect way to catch a glimpse of a stunning aurora display.
Norway: The regions around the city of Tromso are acclaimed for spotting the aurora. Or head to Sollia on the Russian-Norwegian border.
Northern Lights in Scotland. Pic credit: Jonathon Combes
Scotland: We’ve already mentioned Orkney and Shetland as the best places in the UK for a sighting of the Northern Lights. Why not combine a walking and wildlife tour to these fabulous Scottish islands?
Finland: In Finnish Lapland, you can head off on a snowshoe or snowmobile trek to see the Northern Lights.
Canada: The lights are not just a northern European event. Churchill, in the Canadian province of Manitoba, is said to be one of the best places in North America to see an aurora borealis display. Check out our walking holidays in Canada.
Have you seen the northern lights? If so, where and when?