Spotting the Northern Lights

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What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are unquestionably one of the most breathtaking natural spectacles in the world. The bright dancing lights of the aurora are collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. The lights are most frequently seen in the Polar Regions, centered within a 2500 kilometres radius of the geomagnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as 'aurora borealis' in the north and 'aurora australis' in the south.

The lights of the aurora generally extend from 80 kilometres to as high as 640 kilometres above the earth's surface. The best places to see the Northern Lights is over the southern tip of Greenland and Iceland and the northern coast of Norway. In North America you can see the lights in the northwestern parts of Canada and Alaska too.

Colours of the Northern Lights

Auroral displays appear in a magnitude of colours although pale green and pink are the most common. All red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 320 kilometres above the earth’s surface. Sightings are rare, though when seen are brilliant. If nitrogen particles are added, the aurora will take on a stunning purple-red or violet hue. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to arcs, streamers, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow.

Best places to see the Northern Lights

When the Aurora Borealis are at their greatest they can be seen in dozens of countries that fall anywhere close to the Arctic Circle and that even includes the far north of Scotland. Of course, some places are better viewing spots than others and here are five of the best places to witness the light show.

Iceland

Due to its location just below the Arctic Circle, scientists predict Iceland to be one of the best locations in the world for viewing the lights, as the sky above is set to play host to the highest number of active aurora forms in the coming years. In the winter of 2014, the lights entered the most lively phase of their 11-year cycle and it is expected that the next three years will also offer good opportunity for seeing breathtaking light shows.

Finnish Lapland

The northernmost region in Finland is known for its vast wilderness and an excellent spot to see the Northern Lights with minimal light pollution at an optimal latitude within the Arctic Circle. Here you can journey on ski mobiles into the unspoiled snowy landscapes or enjoy the displays in the warmth of purpose-built igloos with glass-domed roofs.

Norway

Arctic Norway is commonly nicknamed 'the kingdom of light' for its frequent light shows. North of Helgeland, including the Svalbard Islands, you'll be rewarded with dramatic coastline, mountain formations and stunning fjords. Sitting under the Northern Lights Belt, the northern region of Norway is one of the most reliable places to spot the lights.

Sweden

In the far northwest corner of the country, Swedish Lapland is a remote region of Arctic plains and glacial mountains, perfect for outdoor adventurers. It's also home to the very first ice hotel, the Jukkasjäroi Ice Hotel - everything from the beds to the bar is made of ice and snow, and this unique experience perfectly compliments a Northern Lights expedition.

Canada

The Aurora Oval covers a large portion of Canada including the provinces Nova Scotia and British Columbia, to name but a few. Again, the further north you head the better your chances of catching the Northern Lights but if you're looking to combine your visit to Canada with its famed skiing opportunities, head away from the cities and increase your chances.

Best time to see the Lights

Seeing the Northern Lights is a truly unforgettable experience, but one that is largely dependent on luck. As a traveller with limited time, you must do all you can to increase your chances of catching a show. The best time to view the aurora is near midnight local time, as this is when the most active displays occur and the sky is at its darkest. Aurora activity tends to come in waves during the evening, which are called aurora sub-storms.

In Iceland the optimal viewing season is between September and March when the nights are cold, crisp and clear. It's also nice if the weather is calm, as you'll want to stand outside and gaze. It's often claimed that November to February are the very best months, in the depth of winter when there's more hours of darkness, though this period of the year also receives some of the worst weather conditions with cloud cover threatening to obscure the sky and Northern Light displays.

The longer you give yourself in Iceland the more chances you have of a spectacular show so if the Northern Lights are your once-in-a-lifetime adventure, plan a week's holiday and head out each evening. The lights work in cycles of two to three nights of intense activity followed by three to four nights of very little activity so any holiday more than five days will work best with these cycles.

How to spot the Northern Lights

Heading away from the city lights of Reykjavík is best so we spend our Northern Lights expeditions out in the Icelandic countryside where the light pollution is minimal. The geothermal pools that dot the Icelandic countryside are excellent places for aurora spotting, especially when it's really cold. Nothing quite beats relaxing in bubbling warm waters, perhaps enjoying a soothing cup of hot chocolate, as vivid sheets of light dance above your head.

Photographing the Northern Lights - Iceland Tours - On The Go Tours

Photography Tips

If you're looking to capture this natural spectacle to savour forever then you'll need to be prepared. Here's our top tips on how to get the best photos:

  • Make sure you're familiar with your camera before you reach Iceland so you know how to use the settings and don't waste time figuring it out when the lights are right in front of you.
  • For maximum control, use a camera with full manual settings - you will need to be able to adjust the aperture, shutter speed and the ISO (sensitivity to light). In such dark conditions you'll like be using a wide aperture, slow shutter speed and high ISO to let in as much light as possible into your camera.
  • Take a tripod with you - with low shutter speeds you'll need a tripod to keep the camera steady and avoid blurring the image.
  • Use the camera's timer to take each picture so that you don't knock the camera at moment of exposure. Better still take a shutter release cable with you and wear gloves - it will be cold!
  • Use a wide angle lens to capture as much of the surrounding landscape as possible and help give your images a sense of depth.
  • Don't forget spare memory cards and batteries - you won't want to be caught short when those lights grace the sky.

See Also

Check out the following handy information to help plan your visit to Iceland:

Best Time to Visit - climate and seasons in Iceland
Best Places to Visit - know where to go in Iceland
Tourist Visas - a guide to visa regulations for Iceland
Top Travel Tips - what to expect of the food and info on money and time
Traveller Reviews - see why our passengers love our Iceland tours
The Golden Circle - our guide to Iceland's most famous tour route
Whale Watching - discover when and where it's best to go whale watching in Iceland
Iceland Video Lounge - the Land of Fire and Ice captured from behind the lens

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