The Northern Lights is one of the most spectacular natural sights in the world, drawing thousands of tourists to Arctic locales like Alaska every year to partake in its beauty. While auroras can be viewed with regularity in and around the Arctic Circle every winter, you may be wondering: when is the best year to see the Northern Lights?
The short answer is that the best year to see the Northern Lights is whenever you can get the chance. However, variations in solar activity mean that during some years, the Northern Lights are more spectacular than others. Read on to learn when the best time to go aurora hunting is.
The Best Year to See the Northern Lights
One blatantly dishonest claim made by some websites is that the Northern Lights are going to “disappear.” This is not going to happen. The Northern Lights are created by solar wind interacting with the magnetosphere, the protective bubble around Earth created by the magnetic fields. The sun is always giving off solar wind, so the Northern Lights will continue to occur so long as the sun and the Earth’s magnetic fields exist.
However, because of cycles in solar activity, the occurrence of the Northern Lights can increase or decrease. Scientists have observed that the sun’s activity follows an 11-year cycle. During the solar maximum, sunspot activity increases and the sun gives off excess amounts of solar wind. This results in more particles impacting the Earth, manifesting in an increased number of auroras and an increase in the vividness and colorfulness of those auroras.
The downswing of the solar cycle is referred to as a solar minimum. During this period, sunspot activity decreases and can often halt entirely for days at a time. With less solar wind impacting the atmosphere, this means that auroras will occur less frequently and will be smaller in size.
According to scientists, the most recent peak of solar activity was in 2014. Since then, sunspot activity has decreased and will continue to do so until 2020, when it will start increasing again. The result of this is that auroras have become less common. Though they still occur on a regular basis in the Arctic Circle and around it, they lack the frequency and intensity that they do during a solar maximum. Because of this, the ideal time to see the Northern Lights is at or near the solar maximum, which is next estimated to occur around 2025.
In addition to this, the sun follows longer periods of increased and decreased activity that have been observed by scientists. The Modern Maximum was a period from 1914 to 2008 in which solar activity was unusually strong, leading to more vivid and spectacular auroras. Since then, solar activity has markedly declined. Scientists are unclear on the mechanisms behind these larger solar cycles and do not know when the next grand maximum period will begin.
Another factor to consider when going to see the Northern Lights is local weather conditions. The Northern Lights must be viewed in late fall or winter due to the fact that there is too much daylight to witness them during other parts of the year. However, a number of popular aurora viewing locations, such as Tromsø, Norway, suffer from large amounts of cloud cover during certain months. If the sky where you are is too cloudy, you will not be able to see any auroras.
An ideal aurora viewing location is one that has a minimal amount of cloud cover during peak aurora viewing season. Locations such as Fairbanks, Alaska are ideal for this, because they typically have clear skies even during the winter months. Before selecting an aurora viewing destination, research weather data so you can be assured that you will have a few clear days on which to see the Northern Lights.
The intensity and frequency of the Northern Lights are subject to forces that are outside of human control. The 11-year solar cycle directly impacts how often auroras occur, and during periods of minimal solar activity, auroras will happen less often and will be smaller when they do occur. On the macro scale, the period of minimal solar activity that the sun entered into in 2008 is one that we don’t know will end.
Having said this, the Northern Lights have not and will not stop occurring, regardless of shifts in solar activity. It is impractical to wait years for a solar maximum to begin, so if you want to see the Northern Lights for yourself, the best time to so is as soon as you can book a trip. Despite what some clickbait articles may say, so long as you can get yourself to the Arctic Circle, you can partake in the splendor of the Northern Lights no matter what year it is.