There are two types of Northern Lights in the world. The kind that are on every free spirit’s bucket list, and the ones they put on in Blackpool every year. No shade on the northern seaside town but I think we can all agree, right here right now, that recounting the time you went on an Arctic Circle adventure is a better story for the pub than telling people that you went to that place where they sometimes film Strictly.
With that in mind, here are the answers to some common questions about the Aurora Borealis, and some slightly more adventurous ways you might be able to catch a glimpse, whilst on a Northern Lights holiday.
1. Where can see you the Northern Lights?
Believe it or not, you can actually see the Northern Lights in the UK. But you have to be pretty lucky! On rare occasions, they’ve been seen as far south as Cornwall or Kent. You don’t really want to sit around with your fingers crossed for that one though. It is more common to see the lights in the north of England and in Scotland, but still nothing like as reliable as if you head further north still.
The best way to see the Northern Lights, it goes without saying, is to head north. The further north you get, the more frequently the lights appear and the brighter the colours. Places like Alaska, Northern Canada, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Russia, Sweden and Greenland… that’s where you want to be. Popular Northern Lights destinations in Europe – and they’re popular for a reason – include Tromsø in Norway and Finnish Lapland. Wherever you end up, you need to be able to see the northern horizon for a chance at glimpsing the lights.
2. When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
You can observe the Northern Lights anytime between late August and mid-April, although your best chance is in the window of opportunity between late September and late March. If you want to get right down into specifics, due to the nature of equinox your absolute best bet for seeing them are in the months of March and September. From mid-April until mid-August, the long days of summer means your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are slim to zero. Basically, it doesn’t get dark – so it’s very hard to see them!
3. What causes the Northern Lights?
Get your science hat on because we’re about to get all scientific up in here. The Northern Lights appear because charged particles from the sun hit atoms in Earth’s atmosphere. This, in turn, causes electrons in the atoms to move to a higher-energy state (they get hyper, basically). Upon returning to a lower energy state, they release a photon. This process is what causes the aurora borealis (aka the Northern Lights). Class dismissed.
Joking aside, these glowing patterns in the sky are an incredible scientific phenomenon. You are actually seeing the effects of the solar wind as it hits the Earth’s magnetic field. When there are big bursts in solar activity, the lights can be seen further south than normal (like we said before about Cornwall and Kent). These magical colours in the sky are a reminder that we live in an enormous and complicated universe. You think of that as you stare up into those lights. Talk about getting perspective.
4. Are the Northern Lights always green?
Contrary to what the Instagram influencers would have you believe, the Northern Lights aren’t always green. The iconic green is the most common colour observed, but this natural phenomenon can also appear white-grey – or even have purples, reds and blues. The reason you see green pictures most often is that our eyes can most easily observe the green-yellow part of the sunlight’s spectrum. But then everyone’s perception of colour is a little different, so maybe one person sees green when another sees turquoise.
Apparently it also depends on the weather in Space… Try get your head around that! These solar winds can whip up into solar storms and have a stronger effect on the particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. Remember from our science lesson that the colours are caused by different particles? Well, let’s think about it: which gas particles do we usually have in the air? Typically Oxygen, Nitrogen, Carbon Dioxide and some others. Each of these will give out a different colour light. How high up in the atmosphere this collision happens makes a difference too, but we won’t get in to that!
5. How to photograph the Northern Lights?
Glad you asked. Much better to go in knowing than potentially miss the shot of a lifetime because you’re having to frantically Google the answers in the Arctic Circle while simultaneously playing about with your camera settings. Our recommendation is to set your ISO between 800 and 3200, and your aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6. You’ll also want your shutter speed running super slow, between 15 and 30 seconds.
With that in mind, it’s probably a good idea to take a tripod. There’s nothing more disappointing than a wobbly, blurry photo of something that might be lights – or might be someone running around with a glow stick.
6. Is seeing the Northern Lights guaranteed?
The Northern Lights are extremely unpredictable. They’re like that unreliable friend of yours. The one who’s absolutely incredible on a night out, the best company you could hope for, but who’s flakier than a multi-pack of Cadbury’s Flake. You can go at the right time of year, on the right kind of night, use an intelligent Aurora Forecast app that’ll predict activity level and be with an expert guide. All that, and it won’t matter a jot if the Lights are in a temperamental mood. Our policy is to go for the destination and treat the spectacle as the ultimate cherry on the cake.
7. How close to Earth are the Northern Lights?
Looking at pictures of the Northern Lights, it can seem like they’re… right there. Like they’re shooting out from the top of mountains, or something. In reality though, the closest they ever come to Earth is about 80 km above the Earth’s surface. As a point of comparison, planes fly about 10 km above the surface. The colour of the Lights varies depending on how far above the Earth’s surface they’re occurring. Green occurs 100 km to 240 km off Earth, blue and violets – below 100 km, and reds – above 240 km. Typically. Let’s not go in to this in detail or we’ll be talking more science and less adventure than healthy!
8. How much does it cost to see the Northern Lights?
Of course, that question has multiple answers. We’ve already touched upon this, but there are many places in the North you can go to see the Northern Lights. Depending on where you go, it can cost you hundreds of pounds or it can cost you thousands of pounds. For example, you could go to the most ridiculously expensive country and stay in an over-the-top luxurious hotel, so that you can see the lights from the comfort of a bed (or a swimming pool!). If that doesn’t float your boat (me neither) then there are loads of exciting ways to turn this into a trip.
Obviously, the price you pay will be dependent on lots of things. It’s not just the destination but also the activities you choose to do while you’re there – you may as well make the most of it. Particularly if the northern lights decide not to make an appearance. You don’t want to feel disappointed. Plus, of course, how long a trip you take will also change the price.
9. Why see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights get a lot of hype. So much hype that you might be wondering if they’re like that film which won like 200 Academy Awards and that you still haven’t got round to seeing yet. Well, fear not. They’re good. They’re really, really, good.
I guess there’s no tangible reason to see them. You aren’t going to be magically healed of all ills or discover a pot of gold. You probably won’t encounter aliens or be presented with an “I Saw The Northern Lights” medal. Sure, it’s possible, but I wouldn’t hold your breath for any of it. (Always read the small print!)
But, it is very beautiful. I mean, have you seen the photos? Imagine actually being there, in the snow, breath fogging in front of you. As you gaze out at the sky, you are reminded that, actually, you are a very small person on a small planet in an enormous universe.
10. Should I go and see the Northern Lights?
You already know the answer to that.
Give yourself the best chance of experiencing the Aurora and get out on a Northern Lights adventure this winter with only best local guides and hosts.