Dusty, dream-like colours fizz through the air, as if someone tore open a planet sized bag of sherbet and carelessly tossed it through space. Though words don’t quite do it justice, as these colourful colliding particles are best described with your own eyes. They go by the name Aurora Borealis (or more commonly ‘Northern Lights‘) and catching a glimpse can be difficult, unless you know the right time to go and the best places to see it. Yet there’s an even rarer sky wonder out there, known as Aurora Australis (or ‘Southern Lights‘) and since it mainly features around the Antarctic, only lucky sky watchers in the very south of Australasia catch glimpses.
Before you go charging in and start packing that bag, there’s a few important factors to consider. Firstly, there’s a right time to find the Lights and a time which they never appear at all. Secondly, they only appear in certain areas in certain countries, so you need to know exactly where to head out beforehand.
When are the Northern Lights Visible?
Ultimately, like the weather, the Southern and Northern Lights are difficult to predict. Though estimations can be made and usually a day or two before occurring, predictions can be reasonably accurate. There are several important factors to consider, which all help to form the right conditions to see the Aurora Lights.
- Spring and Autumn Equinox – When the sun is directly over the equator, the Lights will appear the strongest. This is on or around March 20th and September 23th every year, though these are not the only days when it’s in the sky, just the peak of the Aurora season (when they’re most visible).
- Dark Months – From February to April and August to October the Aurora are most viewable and even spill outside of those months if the conditions are right.
- Timing – From around 21:00 to 01:00 locally is the time when the Lights are most likely to appear, so be prepared to camp out for a while as they can take some time to arrive.
How Best to see the Aurora Lights
So you know the times that they’re most likely to occur, but how can you increase the likelihood that you’ll catch them? It’s all about the conditions of the sky, the Lights are happening all year round, but they’re simply not visible when it’s too light or too cloudy.
- New Moon – The best time to view the Aurora is when the sky is at its clearest. So during the New Moon, when the moon is least visible, there’s less light, making the sky as dark as possible. The days in which the New Moon occurs changes month by month and year by year, so you’ll need to check a lunar calendar for the current moon phase.
- Clear Skies – It’s also of significant importance for there to be no clouds, as obviously this allows you to see right up to the sky. So keep an eye on weather forecasts and try to catch a day when the skies will be still and clear.
Where to See the Southern and Northern Lights
Now you know exactly when the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis are best viewed, so now all you need to know is where best to go. Due to the Earth’s magnetic field, the Lights form in a doughnut shape above and below the magnetic poles. This makes it a little easier to see roughly in which countries they’re going to strike.
As you can see in the map below, the natural phenomenon circles its way from Alaska, right the way around the Earth to northern areas of Russia. And in the South, it mainly clings to the Antarctic, but the edges occasionally brush past the Southern tips of New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Chile. Yet, you can’t just randomly stumble into a country, there are certain cities within which are perfectly located for viewing the skies.
- Alaska – Fairbanks is considered the best spot and is known as the “aurora oval”, get up to Ester Dome if you can for a horizon to horizon view. Anywhere above 60° north latitude is considered to have decent viewing. Denali is another place worth visiting and if you want to go even further north, Nome is your best bet.
- Canada – The north-western areas are where you need to head, though often the Lights stretch further south and east, making them viewable even from the USA. The Yukon territory is a prime spot, with the capital Whitehorse holding a lot of decent views. Yet you can cut right through Yellowstone and down to Manitoba and still catch good positions.
- Greenland – Northern Lights are best seen in the south of Greenland and in eastern areas. Kulusuk is an excellent little settlement in the south, whilst Ammassalik in the east will also have decent visibility. However, during prime season, the Lights can be seen from most of the country.
- Iceland – Anywhere in Iceland they’ll be visible, just head to high ground for the best views.
- Scandinavia – Northern areas of Norway, Finland and Sweden are all excellent places. Tromsø is a popular city in Norway as there are lots of clear, open areas to view the sky. Abisko is the best spot in Sweden as the mountainous terrain allows the sky to really open up. In Finland you need to head into Finnish Lapland when areas such as Kittilä offer perfect opportunities.
- Russia – All northern areas of Russia, including Siberia, will experience high degrees of Northern Lights, due to its close proximity to the Arctic Circle. The Kola Peninsula is right in the Northern Lights’ belt, close to northern Scandinavia, making it a perfect spot for watching. The city of Murmansk is popular with sky watching tourists.
- South America – While the Aurora Australis runs close to the southern tip of this continent, it’s rare to be able to see them unless the band has extended out. Nonetheless, in the seas below Argentina and Chile, perhaps if you’re cruising, some Southern Lights can be seen at peak season on clear nights.
- Australasia – The Southern Lights tend to appear slightly more regularly in the very southern areas of Australia and New Zealand. The island of Tasmania or the coast of Victoria are your best bets in Australia. Whilst in New Zealand, Stewart Island is the most common spot to catch them, or around Invercargill on the coast.
It can be difficult to catch the absolute perfect conditions. Finding a flawlessly clear sky, on a peak Aurora day, in one of the numerous countries can all come down to luck. Especially since you have to book holidays reasonably far in advance. Yet hopefully with the knowledge of exactly when and where the Southern and Northern Lights occur, you can give yourself an excellent chance of seeing them. And perhaps most importantly, the conditions don’t need to be impeccable for you to view them, as the colours are so vibrant and the light so strong, that you can easily come away seeing some degree of this wonderful, natural feature.
- Bonus tip – If you’re heading to see the Lights at the very peak times, it will definitely be absolutely freezing. In the middle of the night and in the cusp of winter, remember to wrap up!
- Bonus tip #2 – The Canadian Space Agency now have live video of the Northern Lights on their website.