The Northern Lights are noted as one of the top tourist attractions of the Arctic Circle and one of the great natural wonders of the world. Every winter, visitors from around the world descend on Alaska, Greenland, and other Arctic locales to witness the night sky light up in a kaleidoscope of colors. Given the expense of traveling to the Arctic, if you’re interested in taking a vacation to see the Northern Lights, you might be wondering: is it possible to predict the Northern Lights in advance?
The answer is yes…and no. While aurora activity can be monitored to a certain extent, there is no guarantee that the Northern Lights will occur on a given night. This is due to weather, sunspot activity, and a number of other factors. Read on to learn about how to predict the occurrence of the Northern Lights.
Can the Northern Lights Be Predicted?
The Northern Lights, also known as aurora borealis, is a phenomenon created by the interaction between the sun and Earth’s atmosphere. When solar wind (particles that are given off by the sun) make contact with Earth’s magnetic field, they generate an effect that is visible as bands of color in the night sky. This means that the occurrence of the Northern Lights is dependent primarily on solar activity; when the sun is more active, the Northern Lights is more likely to occur and auroras themselves are likely to be more vivid and memorable.
Scientists have been able to pinpoint cycles of solar activity by studying changes in the sun’s makeup. According to astronomers, the sun entered into a period of reduced activity in 2008, after a century-long period of high sunspot activity known as the Modern Maximum. This portion of the solar cycle, known as a “minimum,” makes the Northern Lights less likely to occur due to fewer waves of solar wind making contact with Earth.
In addition to these larger cycles, scientists have identified an 11-year cycle in which solar activity waxes and wanes due to flips in the sun’s magnetic field. During the waning part of this cycle, solar wind emissions are at a minimum, which make auroras less likely to occur. At present, the sun is in the waning portion of this 11-year cycle, with the next peak of solar activity expected to occur around 2025. This makes the Northern Lights rarer.
Having said this, auroras still occur frequently during solar minimums; they are just less likely to occur compared to solar maximums and are smaller in scope. NASA and other space agencies have developed tools that allow them to monitor aurora activity by measuring solar activity, making it possible to predict auroras up to an hour in advance. These tools can be accessed for free online and are an invaluable resource for aurora hunting.
Another factor when it comes to predicting the Northern Lights is weather. Auroras can only be witnessed on clear nights due to cloud cover blocking the upper atmosphere from you. Many prime aurora viewing spots are selected precisely because they have limited cloud cover during the winter months. Even if an aurora occurs during an overcast day, you will not be able to see it due to the clouds blocking your view.
The easiest way to ensure that you will see the Northern Lights is to select a time of year and day when they are most likely to occur. This means traveling during the winter, since the large amounts of sunlight in the Arctic during the summer months keeps auroras from being seen. Auroras can be viewed with regularity in the Arctic from August through April. While aurora activity peaks during the equinox months of September and March, October through February are also good aurora viewing times due to an abundance of darkness in the far north.
Another factor to consider is the time of day. Aurora activity peaks between the hours of 11pm and 2am due to a minimum of sunlight in the sky. It’s because of this that many tour operators will take their clients out to view auroras during these hours. However, it is possible to see an aurora anytime the sky is dark, with auroras having been witnessed as early as 8pm and as late as 8am in some areas.
Having said all this, there is no perfect way to guarantee that the Northern Lights will occur on a specific night. While it is possible to maximize your chances of seeing an aurora by selecting a good location during a particular time of the year and day, there are any number of factors that could get in the way. Most tour operators will acknowledge this while also noting that your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are all-but guaranteed if you remain in the Arctic for several days.
Predicting the Northern Lights is a tricky business due to the confluence of factors that are responsible for creating it in the first place. There is no way to guarantee with 100 percent certainty that the Northern Lights will occur on any particular night. However, if you pick an ideal viewing location with clear weather and head out during peak aurora times, you will almost certainly be able to witness the Northern Lights at some point during your Arctic trip.