The Northern Lights is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Arctic Circle. Every winter, countless tourists make the journey north to witness auroras, which transform the night sky into a panoply of dazzling colors, a sight unlike any in the world. Given that the size and strength of auroras is dependent on a number of external factors, you may be asking yourself this question: when is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
The short answer is that the best time to see the Northern Lights is whenever you can. However, there are a number of things that affect how easy it is to see the Northern Lights, how often they appear, and how big they are. Here is how you can determine the best time to see auroras.
The Best Time to See the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights can really only be viewed during the winter months, as well as early spring and late fall. This is because auroras only occur at night; the light of the sun blots them out during the day. Due to the Earth’s tilt, day lengths shift dramatically in the Arctic over the course of a year, with near-constant daylight during the summer and very little sunlight—or none at all—during the winter. Because of this, you will want to visit the Arctic during the winter in order to maximize your chances of seeing an aurora.
The exact month in which the Northern Lights are most easily viewed tends to vary. Most tourists prefer the months of January and February, when the sky is at its darkest and also when there is sufficient snowfall for winter activities such as skiing and snowmobiling.
Another factor to consider is the time of day. Despite the Arctic’s reputation for dark winters, most locations in the Arctic receive at least some sunlight during this time of year. Auroras are most easily spotted when the sky is completely dark. This makes the hours of 9:30 pm to 1am the time in which you are most likely to see an aurora, though it is possible to view them as early as 4pm and as late as 6am.
Since auroras require clear skies, it is obvious that you need a location that has minimal cloud cover in order to see them effectively. Many otherwise prime aurora viewing locations, such as Tromsø, Norway, have significant cloud cover during parts of the winter, meaning you should avoid traveling to these places during those months if you want to see auroras.
A factor that is outside human control when it comes to the Northern Lights is solar activity. Because auroras are caused by the sun’s interaction with Earth, during periods of intense solar activity, auroras are more prevalent and larger in size. This is because auroras are the result of solar wind—particles emitted by the sun—coming into contact with Earth’s magnetic field.
Scientists have observed that the sun operates on an 11-year cycle, during which solar activity waxes and wanes. When solar activity peaks during this cycle, auroras are more common and stronger in intensity. During a solar minimum (period of low solar activity), auroras are less frequent and smaller in size. According to scientists, the next peak of solar activity will occur around 2024-2025, at which point auroras will occur more frequently and be larger in size and scope.
In addition to the 11-year solar cycle, the sun also operates on a series of longer cycles, the mechanism behind them not being fully understood. The sun entered into a solar minimum in 2008, causing a reduction in aurora activity. This contrasts with the Modern Maximum, a period of intense solar activity that began in 1914. Previous solar maximums and minimums and their effects on Earth have been observed; for example, a series of maximums during the Middle Ages led to the Medieval Warm Period, and a solar minimum that began in the 14th century led to what is known as the Little Ice Age.
Having said this, attempting to align your trip perfectly with solar cycles that stretch on for years or longer is unrealistic. While some sensational articles claim that the Northern Lights will disappear altogether due to decreased solar activity, this is not true. So long as the sun continues to exist, it will continue to give off solar wind, the phenomenon that creates the Northern Lights. While the intensity of solar activity varies, there will always be enough solar wind to generate auroras during the winter months.
Choosing an ideal time to view the Northern Lights is crucial in making your trip as memorable as it can be. While some times are better than others, if you plan your trip carefully, you can maximize your chances of seeing an aurora, one of the most striking and beautiful natural sights the world has to offer. If you’re curious about the Northern Lights, why not book a trip and see for yourself?