Snowmobilers cheer as Northern Lights halt their shore excursion from a Hurtigruten ship sailing Norway's northern coast — Photo courtesy of Orjan Bertelsen
Dream of seeing Northern Lights?
Fall and winter of 2015 look promising for catching a show. Year 2016 looks good, too.
But sometime after that, traveling to far northern outposts to catch the lights will be a big expense with perhaps disappointing results. Northern Lights will enter a shy period in perhaps two years, making fewer appearances.
That period of less frequent displays is not optimal for Northern Lights-chasing travelers. Spending a few days in wintry Alaska, Iceland or Norway will offer only a gambler's chance of seeing the aurora when it doesn't show up as often.
But right now there's still a highly active auroral year or two ahead. It's time to launch a successful Northern Lights-chasing journey to a prime aurora-spotting destination such as northern Norway; Fairbanks, Alaska; northwest Canada or Iceland.
When the aurora's upcoming shy period sets in, it's likely to last a decade, to 2024 or even 2026. That's a long wait for another prime period of Northern Lights viewing.
Northern Lights swirl over a home in northern Norway. — Photo courtesy of Lunde Ingvaldsen/Northern Norway
Increase the odds
Be forewarned: Northern Lights are elusive even during active periods, like now.
Though a written guarantee won't coax aurora out of hiding, it does add incentive to book a fall or winter cruise on Norway's Hurtigruten line. The 12-day round trip cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes in far northern Norway guarantees seeing Northern Lights, or be awarded a second cruise for free.
Hurtigruten isn't gambling much here. Ships have aurora-spotting advantages. For one, many sets of eyes keep watch on the sky throughout the night. If Northern Lights appear, sleeping passengers are squawked awake by the public address system.
Another asset is the ship's 360-degree view, ideal because Northern Lights can appear anywhere in the sky.
Passenger on a Hurtigruten cruise in northern Norway is mesmerized by Northern Lights — Photo courtesy of Laurent Patin
Into the night
Hurtigruten's late-day shore excursions bundle up passengers for night adventures that are ripe for aurora encounters. Passengers trek on snowmobiles across a frozen plain. Travel dark roads to attend a Viking feast. Bounce along behind a team of sled dogs. At any moment, aurora could burst forth for a thrilling private show.
Although a few British cruise lines offer Northern Lights cruises, lines familiar to Americans are busy heading to warm regions in winter. But Celebrity Cruises has caught the Northern Lights fever and offers Iceland cruises in late September and October of 2015.
Northern Lights dance over cabins at Snowhotel in Kirkenes, Norway — Photo courtesy of Sze Ming NEOH
Find it in Fairbanks
Fairbanks, Alaska is a top Northern Lights viewing locale. Best to go in slightly warmer October and March when night temperatures aren't too frigid.
Lazy aurora-chasers can head for bed at a Fairbanks motel offering wake-up calls if the aurora appears. More avid visitors can park a car at a Fairbanks ski hill, keeping watch from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., the best hours to catch the lights.
Chena Hot Springs Resort, 30 miles north of Fairbanks, is designed for aurora-spotting. A snow coach hauls visitors uphill to a warm yurt – the aurora waiting room.
Occasionally guests at Chena get lucky and catch the light show from resort's hot springs pool.
Chena Hot Springs Resort provides a warm yurt atop a hill for 360-degree views — Photo courtesy of Shigeo Mori for Chena Hot Springs Resort
Our hot-headed sun
Sinuous swirls of green suddenly appearing in night sky – it's magic. Seeing it changes you.
But we know science is at work, too. The aurora results from massive solar flare-ups that hurl highly charged particles through space. Some particles crash into atmospheric gases at geomagnetic polar areas. That collision creates color bursts of Northern Lights.
Every 11 years, solar flare-ups are huge and frequent. A year or so later, Northern Lights appear frequently, as in this current phase.
A spectacular display of Northern Lights is caught from a Hurtigruten ship in Norway's far north — Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten
Aurora-chaser's best aid is a three-day aurora forecast tool on the website of a top aurora research facility, Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska. Forecasts can be set to your locale.