The Northern Lights, a light show generated by the sun’s interaction with the Earth, is one of the most spectacular sights in the Arctic Circle. Every year, tourists from around the world head north to watch the night sky dissolve into a panoply of brilliant colors, a sight that can only be experienced in the Arctic. Given the time and expense of traveling to the Arctic, you might be wondering what the best month for seeing the Northern Lights is.

As a rule, the Northern Lights can only be seen during the months of winter, late autumn, and early spring. However, there are a number of other factors that go into determining a prime viewing time for auroras. Read on to learn what the best month for viewing the Northern Lights is.

The Best Month to See the Northern Lights

As a rule, the Northern Lights can only be seen in winter. This is because the light from the sun cancels out any aurora effects that might otherwise be visible in the sky; only when it is dark out can auroras be visible to the naked eye. Due to the Earth’s axial tilt, the Arctic experiences extreme shifts in daylight throughout the year, with nearly-constant daylight during the summer and near-total darkness in winter. This makes the months of September through October prime aurora viewing season.

Note that even during the winter, many places in the Arctic still receive some sunlight, as brief as it may be. Only the North Pole itself is completely dark, and even then only during the period immediately before and after the winter solstice on December 21. In general, Arctic residents can expect anywhere from two to four hours of daylight during the winter months, with more sunlight the further south one is.

While auroras can be viewed between September and April due to sufficient darkness in the night sky, months that are closer to the winter solstice are more ideal due to decreased day lengths. In general, the months of January through March are seen as the best time to witness auroras due to both the long nights and the fact that most Arctic locations have sufficient snowfall for snowmobiling, skiing, and other winter activities.

Another factor to consider when picking a month to view the Northern Lights is weather. Since auroras require clear skies in order to be seen, you will not be able to witness them if you are in a location with significant cloud cover. Many popular aurora viewing locations, such as Tromsø, Norway and Kiruna, Sweden have large amounts of cloud cover in December due to the shifting seasons, meaning that December is a poor month to visit these places if your intent is to view auroras.

As a general rule, skies tend to be clearer in the months of January through March, as the shift to winter completes and the weather settles down. This is part of why those months are considered ideal for aurora watching. Note that the later in the year you travel, the more daylight you will have to contend with and the smaller your chances of seeing the Northern Lights.

Finally, one extenuating factor with the Northern Lights is that their prevalence peaks around the September and March equinoxes. These are the periods when the Earth’s tilt is perfectly level and daylight is evenly distributed throughout the world. The spring and fall equinoxes generally fall on March 21 and September 21, respectively. However, extended amounts of daylight during these times combined with shifting weather patterns may make viewing auroras difficult, which is why many tourists prefer to see them during the months of January through March.

Ultimately, you will need to make a decision based on your personal needs as to when you see the Northern Lights. While the best viewing months are January through March, it is possible to witness auroras any time between September and April, provided the location you are in has sufficient darkness and lacks cloud cover. Auroras occur with regularity in the Arctic, so if you stay in any Arctic location during the winter, early spring, or late fall for at least several days, you are guaranteed to see an aurora at least once.

Conclusion

Planning the perfect Northern Lights trip is a tricky thing, requiring you to take location, time of year, time of day, cloud cover, and many other factors into account. Regardless of your time and resources, it is possible for you to go on an Arctic vacation that will maximize your chances of witnessing auroras, some of the most beautiful sights that the planet has to offer. If you’re curious about the Northern Lights and want to see them for yourself, book a tour and prepare to go on a journey you will remember for the rest of your life.