What are the Northern Lights?
Nobody truly knows what causes the Northern Lights. Solar winds with charged particles hit our atmosphere in a very simplified way. The electrical energy reacts with the magnetic field and atoms at about 62 miles and appears as a fluorescent veil – how strongly it appears depends on the solar activity.
The resulting auroras are visible mainly near the poles.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights, and how can you increase your chances of seeing them?
The best time to see the Northern Lights is from late October to early April. Naturally, it should be as dark as possible with a cloudless sky. Due to them being difficult to predict – a Northern Lights forecast is hard to get.
But tools for Northern Lights hunting, which uses the KP index (scale of geomagnetic activity), like specialised apps and the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute website, are very useful.
How can you best capture the Northern Lights?
- You need a good camera and a stable tripod to capture the natural spectacle of the dancing Northern Lights in a picture.
- Familiarise yourself with your camera’s manual settings to get a sharp photo – the automatic mode won’t suffice.
- Go for an SLR or system camera with a light-sensitive wide-angle lens. This works best for landscape pictures.
- You must experiment with the exposure time to get enough light for an expressive photo and avoid distortions from the moving auroras.
- This is also where the tripod comes in to ensure enough stability. A remote shutter release helps to keep the image from blurring when you trigger the shutter.
- Our Tip: Look for a suitable place with a dramatic background, such as mountains, a lonely hut or a coastline. This way, you’ll have a beautifully composed image, not just a green stripe against a dark background.
The top three destinations to see the Northern Lights
Located 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is a Northern Lights hotspot in Norway. Its accessibility and moderate temperatures, thanks to the Gulf Stream, are both excellent attributes for hunting the Northern Lights here.
Tromsø has more to offer than the Aurora Borealis, too. It’s home to the world’s northernmost university and cathedral (Tromsø domkirke) and, until 2015, the northernmost brewery.
The Polar Museum provides information about famous polar expeditions; the Polaria Aquarium introduces you to the marine world beyond the Arctic Circle; and the Arctic Cathedral enchants Europe’s largest glass mosaic window.
You can satisfy your adventurous side with a variety of activities to choose from, including whale expeditions, dog sledging and snowshoeing.
Iceland is the largest volcanic island in the world and is well connected to mainland Europe and North America.
The land of fire and ice lies just below the Arctic Circle and is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, making it an excellent destination for Northern Lights. Where there are fewer people, there is less light pollution.
In winter, staying in the southwest of the island near the capital, Reykjavik is recommended. From here, within a day trip on the Golden Circle, you can explore the Northern Lights in Iceland and some of the best things to do in Iceland.
These include the giant geyser and its more minor brother Strokkur, which erupts punctually every 10 minutes. You’ll also be amazed by the mighty, protected Gullfoss waterfall.
The nearby Thingvellir National Park is considered the birthplace of Iceland, and here, you’ll also find the Silfra Fissure, where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates drift apart – a perfect spot for an unforgettable dive.
Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Ultimately, far from the big cities, northern Canada is suitable for spotting the Northern Lights. Still, Banff National Park, northwest of Calgary, astounds with its beauty. Little light pollution and clear air abound.
- Lake Minnewanka, Castle Junction and Peyto Lake are popular places to admire the phenomenon in the night sky.
- Canada’s first national park is located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In winter, you can expect several feet of snow – perfect for anyone heading to the Banff ski resorts or for a horse-drawn sleigh ride.
In addition to moose, wolves, and snow goats, you might even encounter some bison reintroduced in 2017.
From ice skating and ice climbing on frozen waterfalls to spotting some of the local wildlife or exploring the neighbouring Jasper National Park, Banff National Park caters to everyone’s travel plans.