An unforgettable sight: where and when you can see the northern lights
Do you dream to see the northern lights live? Skyscanner compiled a travel guide to help you make your dream come true. Choose a route, follow simple tips and be ready to dash off at any time towards the most unearthly sight that can be seen without leaving the planet.
What is aurora and how to catch it
The encyclopedia dryly explains that the aurora is the glow of the upper rarefied layers of the atmosphere caused by the interaction of atoms and molecules with high-energy charged particles invading the earth's atmosphere from space. In human terms and in a very simplified way, this means that the Sun throws millions of tons of particles into space, after 2-5 days they reach the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere, where nitrogen and oxygen are so happy to meet that they already glow with excitement.
Glows occur in the vicinity of the Earth's magnetic poles. Fortunately, the magnetic poles do not coincide with the geographic ones, so we can observe auroras at latitudes of about 67-70 °, and sometimes much closer to the equator, right up to Moscow and Tver.
The Earth has two poles, therefore, there are two auroras - north and south. Seeing the southern lights is problematic, since there are not so many habitable places at the desired latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. But in the Northern Hemisphere there are many corners where you can see the aurora borealis.
How to see the aurora
At first, the bad news: it is difficult to find the northern lights - too many circumstances should be successful. So be mentally prepared to ride idly north. Good news: If you follow simple tips, you can significantly increase your chances.
When is the aurora
The season of auroras is considered the period from the autumn to the spring equinox, that is, from September to March. This does not mean that the sky illuminates only in these months, the radiance may well happen in August. But the likelihood is still higher in winter - from about November to February. At the same time, at high latitudes at this time, the night lasts 18-20 hours, and even faint auroras will be more clearly visible. Professionals argue that the best time of day for observation is from about 10 pm to 3 am.
Ideal conditions - frosty clear night and high solar activity on the eve, writes Tripmydream. There is no general guaranteed formula for "success" or the same conditions, so for each country you need to track the activity of the northern lights on special sites with forecasts.
How to increase your chances of seeing the aurora
1. Watch outbreaks in the sun
The main condition for the aurora is the emission of particles on the Sun. After such an outburst, you will have from two to five days to get to the desired latitudes. Of course, the more powerful the ejection, the more chances that there will be a glow at all. Space weather is monitored by many observatories around the world, we bring to your attention the sites of some of them:
- Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radio Wave Propagation RAS, Russia
- University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, USA
- Meteorological Institute of Finland
- University of Lancaster, UK
- Space Weather Forecast Center, USA
Each site monitors the K-index - the index of magnetic activity. Its values range from 1 to 9, where one - "everything is calm", nine - "electronics is failing." Notice that the K-index has reached a value of 4-5 and higher - pack your things and head north. It is convenient to keep track of auroral forecasts using the US CPC applications for iOS и Android.
2. Keep away from cities
Electric city lights create light pollution, so near them the night sky is less contrasting, and the aurora is seen much less or not at all. The larger the city, the more light noise and the farther you need to drive away from it. From a small village, 5-10 km will be enough, from a metropolis - at least 50-70 km.
3. Wait for the weather to clear.
Auroras glow at an altitude of over 100 km. The clouds are always lower, that is, they will be between you and the radiance, which means they will close the view. In winter, there are more chances for a clear sky on frosty days and in moments of cold snap.
4. Get Farther North
The closer you get to the Arctic Circle (or even go further north), the more likely you are to see the aurora. Although it depends on the value of the K-index: if it goes off scale to 8-9 points, you can just look out the window, even if you live in Sochi.
On the subject: What to expect from visiting touted sights
Where to go to see the aurora
In Europe and North America, you can admire the fantastic natural phenomenon even from the warm room of a comfortable hotel. In Russia, at first glance, there are almost limitless opportunities to observe the northern lights: the Arctic Circle crosses half of the country. But in winter, it is difficult to get to many places, and the temperature in some places can drop to -45 ° C. Plus, flying to remote corners of Russia can be prohibitively expensive.
Fairbanks is often cited as the best spot to see the Northern Lights in the United States. Fairbanks claims that if you stay there for three nights, you have an 80% chance of seeing aurora borealis.
Here is the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, which graduates forecasts regarding viewing conditions of the aurora. Tourists are offered various specialized excursions and tours, trips to the Arctic Circle, unforgettable trips to remote and uninhabited places on the Alaska Winter Snow Train train.
In Yellowknife, Canada, the aurora can be seen for almost 240 days a year. Due to its geographical location, weather conditions and infrastructure, this small town is considered the capital of the northern lights in Canada.
Winters are quite harsh here, so tourists are offered all the conditions for a comfortable "hunt" for the radiance - special hotels and campgrounds, transport and clothing. Yellowknife monitors the aurora every day and claims there is a 95% chance of seeing it for three consecutive days each season. You can monitor the weather and the activity of the aurora on AURORA FORECAST.
Geography, weather, beautiful scenery, infrastructure and well-developed winter tourism make Northern Norway one of the favorite destinations for northern lights hunters and photographers. In "continental" Norway, Alta, Tromsø and Longyearbyen claim the title of the capital of the northern lights. In Tromsø, the tourist infrastructure is better developed, but Alta is located almost on the 70th parallel, and this in itself is a good tourist "tick". Tromsø is often referred to as the “gateway to the Arctic” and the birthplace of the Northern Lights.
Tourism is actively developing in the city - they will offer thematic tours, expeditions, exhibitions, campsites and cruises under a shining sky. You can monitor the activity of the radiance in a special application Norway lights. Longyearbyen, the “capital” of Norwegian Svalbard, is located at 78 degrees north latitude - closer to the North Pole you can only get within the framework of the Arctic expedition.
All the conditions for observing the radiance are also in Sweden, for example, in the small town of Abisku. It is located in an elevated position in a national park away from major cities. In the same place on Mount Nuola, at an altitude of 900 meters above sea level, the center of Aurora Sky Station is located.
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There you will find a cozy café, a gift shop, an observation tower and a northern lights exhibition. The center is considered one of the most comfortable spots for observing the aurora and humbly calls itself "the best spot on the planet for observing the northern lights." The statement is bold, but not unfounded: the center is located on the 68th parallel, in the middle of a national park, away from light pollution of big cities, and even at an altitude of almost 1 km above sea level. Aurora Sky Station has its own hotel, but it will be cheaper to stay in the capital of Swedish Lapland - Kiruna, which is an hour's drive from Abisko.
It is impossible to imagine this list without Iceland - you can see aurora borealis here even in the capital. But most often tourists go to the small town of Stoxeiri, which is just an hour's drive from the capital, to “hunt” for the shine. Stoxeiri is home to the Icelandic Wonders Center, dedicated to Icelandic culture. There you can visit the Elven Museum and get acquainted with the famous ghosts.
In the cinema of the center you will be offered a short film about the activity of the northern lights throughout the year. There you can also use the services of a guide who will show you the places where it is best to observe this natural phenomenon. You can follow the forecast on a special Online.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the climate in Iceland is quite mild: in winter in Reykjavik, the temperature rarely drops below zero. The chances of seeing Aurora borealis in the skies of Iceland are higher - in the north, where it rains less often, for example in Akureyri, which is considered the driest city in the country. But the most spectacular photographs of the northern lights come from the Jökulsarlon glacial lagoon in the southeast. The incredible nature is Iceland's huge advantage over other auroral viewing spots. If only because Icelandic waterfalls and geysers, thermal springs and glaciers will be a great consolation if you are not lucky enough to catch the northern lights.
Up to 200 times a year in Lapland, you can observe Revontulet, or "Fox Fire" - as the Northern Lights are called in Finland. In the areas of Rovaniemi, Kilpisjärvi and Sodankylä, there is a shine almost every day. Great to watch the northern lights in Ivalo. This small village of several thousand inhabitants is very popular with Finnish tourists. And if there are no free rooms in Ivalo hotels, you can settle in the neighboring town of Saariselkä.
And 40 km south of Ivalo is the unique Arctic resort Kakslauttanen with igloos with transparent roofs instead of ordinary houses. Perhaps this is the only place on earth where you can fall asleep in a warm bed looking at the flashes of the northern lights.
Finnish Institute of Meteorology offers to sign up for a special Newsletter with a notification of a high probability of radiance.
A large selection opens up for the hunters of the northern lights in Russia, because a significant part of the country crosses the Arctic Circle. However, most of the options are only suitable for experienced hikers, as in some areas the temperature drops to extremely low levels, and it is quite difficult to get to them in winter. The relatively accessible regions for observing the northern lights are Arkhangelsk and Murmansk.
In the Murmansk region, pay attention to Teriberka, Vidyaevo, Pechenga or any other town with little light pollution. The main thing is to make sure that in winter they can be reached by car.
The Khibiny Mountains are located south of Murmansk, but on a hill there are more chances for a clear sky, and you can completely forget about light pollution in these parts. The infrastructure, unfortunately, is not very well developed here, and many hotels either close for the winter or are very difficult to access. Quite good by local standards, the Kuelporr recreation center promises a winter transfer from Kirovsk by snowmobile.
In principle, the northern lights can be seen in Arkhangelsk itself. But in the context of the power of auroras with latitude, he loses much to the same Murmansk, therefore it is better to make Arkhangelsk a base for travel, and to go for the northern lights even further to the north of the region.
In the Komi Republic, the aurora is not uncommon, sometimes it is seen even in Syktyvkar in August. But to increase the chances, it is better to go further north, to Vorkuta. Be very careful when driving in the north for the first time in winter. At dusk, the winter road merges with the endless snow-covered roadside, and you can easily get off the road by getting stuck in the snow right up to the roof. A flight to Vorkuta can be cheaper if you independently connect two flights in Syktyvkar.
The village of Khatanga is the choice for those looking for both the northern lights and adventure. This is the very heart of Taimyr, the average annual temperature is -13 ° C. But on the other hand, this is one of the northernmost settlements in Russia: from the point of view of the auroras, in latitude it is much more profitable than Murmansk, even Iceland. Airplanes from Krasnoyarsk and Norilsk fly directly to Khatanga.
Useful things to use when observing
- Car - Own or Rented
The car will be very helpful in the hunt for the northern lights. And not so much because you can quickly escape from the zone of light pollution of the city and choose a convenient observation deck. The main advantage of the machine is that you can warm up in it.
- Full tank of gas and a couple of cans in reserve
To run warm up in the car, it makes sense not to drown it out and drown constantly.
- Thermos with tea
In the cold, alcohol warms up over short distances, but over long distances it harms. Therefore, it is better to store alcohol to return to heat.
- Warm shoes
Of course, you will not forget to dress warmly. But pay special attention to shoes, because you will have to stand on snow or frozen ground for quite some time.
A tripod is necessary if you want to achieve high-quality photos.
- Spare Batteries
In cold weather, batteries and batteries discharge very quickly. Make sure you have spare parts for both the flashlight, the telephone, and the camera. Store them either in the car or in the inside pockets of clothes.
- Good camera
It is theoretically possible to photograph the aurora with a “soap box”, but it is not easy and it will only work with bright auroras. Therefore, if you want to capture the spectacle, take a DSLR or at least a mirrorless camera from your friends. And practice taking long exposures beforehand.
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