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Five Northern Lights Tips To Know Before You Go

If you want to see the northern lights in 2024 there’s some very good news. This is going to be an incredible year to see those magical lights dance in the sky as we’re entering solar maximum when they’re expected to be at the most active they’ve been in around 11 years.

Like most people I spent much of my life dreaming about seeing the Northern Lights, and so when I was faced with a big birthday with a 0 on it I decided that would be my very special birthday present to myself.

Of course it’s easy to say you’ll go on a holiday to see them, but whether you will or not is up to the Aurora gods. And boy did they keep me wishing and hoping at first.

It’s been ten years since my first northern lights trip, and I’ve now been lucky to have seen them in Norway, Greenland, Canada and Iceland, as well as from a plane window somewhere over the arctic.

Every single time I’ve seen the northern lights they’ve been completely different and had their own special magic.

The first moved so quickly they looked like the flapping sails on a ship, the second didn’t move at all, and simply glowed above us in a peacefully hypnotic way, while the third started slowly on the horizon before it streaked across the sky above us, dancing and twirling, with a ribbon of red joining the bright green.

The last time I saw them was in Norway in January 2020 on my last trip before the world changed. As well as seeing gentle green versions, on the last night outside Kirkenes we watched reds, oranges and purples twist and turn through the green as they danced their way up from the horizon to spin above our head like the most incredible kaleidoscope.

While you can never be sure when and where they will light up the sky, there are ways to improve your chances of seeing them for the first or thirtieth time.

So before you book that holiday, here are five Northern Lights tips you need to know…

Norway is one of the best places to see the northern lights, image Stein Egil Liland

1. Pick the Right Place

As the name suggests, the Northern Lights are seen in the north. But that’s not to say they’re just anywhere up there.

Before I went aurora chasing for the first time I thought that certain countries like Norway were popular places to see them because they were also beautiful countries to visit for other reasons.

But the truth is, the Northern Lights appear as an oval around the earth’s North Pole, so it’s possible to go too far north to see them.

And because the lights react to the geomagnetic North Pole and not the geographical one, that means that they can be seen at a latitude of 65°N in Scandinavia at the same time as they’re being seen at 50°N in Canada.

In Scandinavia the best places to see them is in a band approximately between 66°N to 69°N. Sure they could appear in other places, but this sweet spot just above the Arctic Circle is where they’re most likely to put on a show. The Northern Lights also shine bright in Iceland which is another popular spot for aurora chasers.

I’m also dreaming of seeing them again in Canada this year. I first saw them in Manitoba on one of my all time favourite wildlife experiences, walking with polar bears with Churchill Wild. Along with Manitoba, the Yukon and Northwest Territories are some of the best places to see them, and I’d love to go back to the Yukon and visit the Northwest Territories for the first time to see them there.

One of the lesser known and rather special things about the northern lights is while you’re watching them up there, the same show is probably happening on the other side of the world. They’re just a whole lot harder to see down there.

The Aurora Borealis (northern lights) and Aurora Australis (southern lights) are both created by particles from the sun entering Earth’s magnetic shield and being pulled towards the magnetic north and south poles.

Scientists have found that most of the time the northern and southern auroras are mirror like images of each other with the same colours and shapes. How beautiful is that?

Jupiter Aurora, image NASA Hubble Space Telescope

Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune also have auroras, and I love the way the Hubble Space Telescope has been able to share some, including this aurora over Jupiter.

While other planets are off the travel cards, the southern lights are also trickier to see as the best place to see them is Antarctica. When I went to Antarctica from Ushuaia I was told it was highly unlikely we would see them, and sure enough we didn’t that trip. While the southern lights can sometimes be seen in Ushuaia and South Georgia Island it’s usually in the darker winter months, while Antarctica cruises operate in the summer months so the odds aren’t good, but that’s not to say it’s impossible.

Now that we’re heading into solar maximum the chances of seeing the southern lights in Australia and New Zealand are a whole lot better than they’ve been in years, and I’m already making plans to go and hopefully see them in Tasmania.

You might see the Aurora Australis, or southern lights in Tasmania, image Luke Tscharke

The photo above was taken at the Cape Bruny Lighthouse at the southern tip of Tasmania’s Bruny Island, and I’m told that when the conditions are right, you can spot them just 15 minutes drive out of Hobart from the Mount Nelson Signal Station, and when they’re bright enough to see them through Hobart’s lights you could also watch them from up the top of Mount Wellington.

Other top spots to see the southern lights in Tasmania include Goat Bluff on South Arm Peninsula, about 35km south-east of Hobart, Carlton Beach which is 40km east of Hobart, and Tinderbox, 20km south of Hobart. 

Cradle Mountain is another favourite in central Tasmania, where you might see the lights reflected in Dove Lake to capture the glistening southern lights. While if you’re up in the north, aurora chasers say the best spots include the Highland Lakes, the Highfield Historic Site above Stanley, and Braddons Lookout near Forth.  

2. Stay Away From the (other) Lights

You know how amazing the stars look in the night sky when you’re out in the countryside? The way you can see whole constellations and sometimes even the milky way with your naked eye, whereas in the city you’re lucky to see a few of the brightest stars in the sky?

That’s what happens when light pollution gets in the way, and it’s the same with the Northern Lights.

One time I was excited to see them on the edge of Churchill, but unfortunately I was driving to the airport so even on the edge of town the artificial light got in their way. If I didn’t have a flight to catch I’d have driven straight out into the dark countryside to watch them properly.

It still felt magical to see them, but believe me they were nothing compared to the other ones I’ve seen, so to see them properly you want to get yourself away from towns, cities, even large resorts, so you can enjoy their full power.

And if you’re wondering whether the light of a full moon will interrupt your northern lights viewing, that can happen if it’s a weaker aurora display, but when those northern lights are strong the moon won’t be a problem at all. Some say it can even enhance the whole experience.

The full moon doesn’t always interfere with your aurora viewing, image Dylan Shaw

3 – Don’t Go Alone

Unless you’ve grown up in the area and know what you’re doing, heading out into the Arctic night by yourself is a really bad idea.

Weather conditions can change quickly, temperatures can drop below minus 30, and it can be all too easy to get lost out there in the wintery wilderness. And depending on where you are you might need to be on the lookout for polar bears and need to know what to do if you if you come across one.

It’s not only much safer to go with a guide, but a good one will know the best places to go to avoid light pollution, and can find the best sheltered spots if a super cold wind kicks up.

A local guide who knows the auroras well is your best bet, and guides are also experts on the right settings for your cameras and other tips for capturing the Northern Lights on film. But if I may suggest something controversial…

4 – Put your camera away

Don’t freak out on me now, you don’t have to do it forever, but do yourself a favour and the first time you see the Northern Lights get lost in the moment, not in your viewfinder.

I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t take photos my first time, and am so glad I did. When the aurora started its show most of the other first timers around me were adjusting settings and trying to get the shot, while I was staring at the sky, covered in happy goosebumps and drinking it all in.

I loved it so much I haven’t taken a photo of any of the other auroras I’ve seen since then as I still don’t want to split my focus and miss a second of the magic.

Although I have used my camera to check if something was a cloud or an aurora.

That’s because sometimes when the lights aren’t bright they can look more like a grey cloud than the greens you expect to see. But cameras see the aurora’s colours much more vividly than our eyes do, so all you have to do is hold your camera up to the mystery cloud and see if it goes green.

Maybe when I’m down in Tasmania later this year I’ll actually set my camera up properly and get some of my first aurora shots. But personally I wouldn’t do it on the first night they come out. Or the second. Which brings me to another very important tip…

Five – Do The Longest Trip You Can

The first time I went to see the Northern Lights I thought I’d planned it all perfectly.

My big birthday just happened to line up with the last solar maximum, I was going to Norway and was going to be away from light pollution, and because I’d always wanted to go to Norway I made it a nice long eleven-day trip.

Thank goodness I did.

For those who don’t already know, the KP Index is a bit like the Richter scale but measures the geomagnetic storms that create northern and southern lights. They range from 0 to 9, and most storms are around a KP1 to KP3.

Every night I was in Norway the KP Index was hitting 8s and 9s. And it was killing me, because every night it was happening behind heavy cloud cover.

Auroras can come in different colours, as seen here in Tromso, Norway, Image Lightscape

Some of the people on my trip left half way through and saw nothing. Then one night the clouds finally parted, and there they were, dancing in the sky and it was one of the most incredible moments of my life.

While my Northern Lights dream came true that night there was a point when I wondered if I would see them at all.

Luckily I was loving Norway so much that I was having a fantastic holiday either way. Yes, I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t seen them, but there were so many other wonderful elements to my trip that I would have still come away with great memories.

And with that I leave you with my last Northern Lights tip: pick a place that you’d love to visit for other reasons so if the lights come out they can be the glowing icing on the cake.

Image credit for the aurora photo at the top of this story goes to Виктор Куликов

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