What causes the Northern Lights?
The phenomenon occurs when electrically-charged particles from the sun are carried in the solar wind to Earth, where they collide with gaseous particles in Earth’s atmosphere. The energy released from those collisions is emitted as billions of small sparks, creating the effect we see. It occurs on other planets too.
When can you see the Northern Lights?
The atmospheric shin-dig happens throughout the year – every time a solar wind arrives bringing ions with them. Spring and Autumn are therefore usually best – as you need clear skies which are, of course, harder to come by in winter. The natural light in summer months or any man-made light pollution dilutes their visual impact and makes them harder to see. You need a dark, inky black sky, as far away from any urban centre as possible.
Still, the Northern Lights are notoriously fickle performers; they can appear anytime, anywhere. But if you’re in the right part of the planet, at the right time of year, for more than a couple of days, your chances of seeing them are excellent. The other good news is that you don’t need to stay up all night hoping they show up. The build-up of energies that give rise to the lights is closely monitored, such that impending displays can be accurately predicted by monitoring stations. Many hotels and tour operators use their forecasts to offer their guests a handy alert service, so you can be gazing skyward for that first ethereal streak. You can also sign up for your own alerts (Europe only) with the free Aurora Service.
Pair it with other bucket list experiences
Since there is no specific one best place or time to see them, even in the five optimal destinations listed above, so pair it with another bucket list experience – a thrilling snow or husky dog sled ride, a cruise on the magnificent Norwegian fjords, or just lying bed in a luxury glass igloo – as part of a broader holiday adventure. Some tour operators offer guarantees and free second trips if you don’t see the Northern Lights.
Where available, click through on the destinations below to see our recommendations of other great bucket list experiences you can sign up for in these hotspots, where you’re also likely to see the Northern Lights along the way. Also see our round-up of great ways to see the Northern Lights.