Looking for the Northern Lights
It’s one of your dream? It was ours too… and you must be a rock not to be shaken by this spectacular phenomenon: the northern lights.
During our roadtrip in Europe, we were expecting a lot from Scandinavia and hoped to be able to see the northern lights…
And after a dozen days scrutinizing the sky… we finally saw some. In the village of Gamelstad, Lulea in the Swedish Lapland. Intense green/yellow aurora borealis were dancing above us and our van. An unforgettable moment that will forever be engraved in us!
This aurora borealis hunt has taught us many things.
And we give you here all you need to know to optimize your chances of seeing them!
1/ What are the Aurora borealis?
First, there are aurora borealis (northern hemisphere) and southern aurora (southern hemisphere). In the North we can see them in Scandinavia, but also in Canada, in Alaska, in Russia … Here, you will rather hear about Northern Lights.
It looks like green/pink/purple draperies that wave in the sky.
It is actually a phenomenon created by the solar wind when it approaches the surface of the Earth (the solar wind is created by a large amount of particles that escape during powerful solar eruptions). The natural magnetic field of the Earth protects it, but it is much weaker close to the 2 magnetic poles (Arctic and Antarctic polar circles) which generates conflagrations: “the northern and southern lights“.
Their colors can vary from green/yellow to pink or even purple according to the altitude at which these blazes occurs (because the composition of the atmosphere is different).
The Sami people (the population living in the North of Lapland) say that the Northern Lights are created by a fox sweeping the sky with his tail. An image that we find very beautiful, furthermore as we are foxes fans!
2/ What is Lapland?
Lapland is the northern region of Scandinavia. It includes northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. The most famous cities are Tromso in Norway, Abisko in Sweden and Rovaniemi in Finland.
It is in this region that we cross the Arctic Circle. Like the equator or the tropics, the Artic circle is an imaginary line. This means here that from this limit, there is at least 1 day a year in winter when the sun never rises (and the closer you get to the polar circle, the longer this endless night will be). It’s the same for the day without night in summer, the famous “midnight sun“!
3/ Where to spot the Northern Lights?
As a result, the logic is that the closer you are from the artic circle, the greater the chance of seeing aurora borealis. Indeed, the geomagnetic storms are more intense and the nights longer. So Lapland is the perfect place to see Northern Lights.
Nevertheless, if all conditions are met, it is possible to see them much more in the South.
For example at Voss or Bergen in Norway, Stockholm in Sweden or Kuopio in Finland. And again, if you are very lucky, it is apparently even possible to see them in the Baltic countries. But having struggled a lot to see them in Lapland, I think it must be quite rare to see them so far south.
4/ How to spot Northern Lights?
Here are the parameters to take into account to hunt the northern lights:
As far north as possible, a well-cleared site and away from too bright places that hinder good visibility.
The best periods are spring and autumn, then winter, and finally summer (because of the very short nights). So prioritize the months of February to May and September to November. And between 10pm and 2am.
Very important, a bit of a barbaric word but which is the key to hunt northern lights for us and the most important index to watch. The Kp (Planetary K-Index) index expresses the magnitude of the geomagnetic storms (the strength of the conflagrations). It goes from 0 to 9 and the bigger the number, the higher the chances of spoting auroras! (see below how to know the forecasts of KP).
All the parameters may be on your side, if the sky is cloudy, no northern lights you will see. You may be in Abisko, in March with KP 7, if the sky is overcast, you will not see this spectacular phenomenon!
So yes, it takes a bit of luck to get everything together … similarly, auroras can last 1 whole night, or only 10/15 minutes. So if you’re not looking the sky at the right time, you can miss this magic show. May the force be with you.
We met a german couple that was coming in Lapland for the 3rd consecutive year and who saw the northern lights for the 1st time this year. At the contrary, we met someone who had the chance to see them in Voss early September whereas he was not looking for them.
>> KP index, Smartphones applications
A lot smartphones applications exist and some of them are really useful. Some others…aren’t. Obviously, we did’nt try all of them, but here are our advices:
- For Norway we had Norway Lights. A very user friendly application that tells you with a Go / Try or Wait the chance you have to spot northern lights (you can even chose your city). It sounds too good, and yes it is! It’s not taking everythings into account so the forecast are too optimistic. For us, it’s a touristic application.
- More accurate, Aurora Forcast and Aurora Now applications are less user friendly but very useful. Not very simple at the first sight, you just have to focus on some basic information to have better forecasts.
If you want to go even further and understand this phenomenon in details, we advice you this website.
5/ Guided tours
Of course, in most cities in the North, there are many tours organized with guides that will take you to places well located, clear with good brightness. They explain what are the Northern Lights, the Sami legend and surely many other anecdotes… around a fire with hot coffee. Certainly very practical and pleasant.
But I think we can totaly find the northern lights by ourselves, sometimes even without looking for them!
And when having a roadtrip in Europe with a tight budget, we try to save money when possible. And regarding us, we are more than delighted!
We wish you good luck and furthermore, a good weather!!!