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 of 2017 brought news of aurora so beautiful, they made watchers weep. Images were spectacular, inspiring travelers' dreams of catching the show.
But the exquisite night sky symphonies of autumn 2017 are not the everyday show. Those phenomenal aurora of September and October were caused by large solar flares called coronal mass ejections. Although solar flares are not uncommon, these were chart-topping size and produced awe-inspiring aurora.
Northern Lights swirl over a home in northern Norway. — Photo courtesy of Lunde Ingvaldsen/Northern Norway
And though the sun can throw off flares at anytime, over the next several years less frequent aurora are more likely the norm. The period called "solar minimum" is the low ebb of an 11-year solar cycle. But our feisty old sun will stir things up again around 2024, the next expected solar maximum when Northern Lights will be both sparkling and frequent.
Hop a plane
If you hear of a massive solar flare, it's worth chasing if you have both time and money. For the record, I came close to booking a twice-the-price plane ticket to Fairbanks, Alaska in September following a giant solar flare, or coronal mass ejection, the scientific term.
But the trip was pricey for a three day visit, plus potential cloud cover made Northern Lights viewing an uncertainty. The lights occur in the ionosphere, well above the clouds.
So I saved my money for a week in Trømso, Norway. Trømso, along with Fairbanks, ranks as one of the only accessible places that sees aurora 250 nights a year.
Fairbanks, Alaska has frequent aurora with displays seen 250 nights a year. — Photo courtesy of Visit Fairbanks
If you're thinking of planning a Northern Lights trip, there's a formula for maximizing chances of catching the lights. Choose a prime viewing location such as Fairbanks, Alaska; Abisko, Sweden; Trømso, Norway; Whitefish, Canada from late fall to spring, times when skies are dark enough to view aurora.
Second, plan enough time in that location to catch clear skies.
The aurora is fickle. Even when you do have clear skies, you may not see it. That was the case during my first aurora-chasing trip to Fairbanks, Alaska when I struggled with below-zero temperatures watching for aurora until 3 a.m. Although two nights out of three were clear at Chena Hot Springs 30 miles from Fairbanks, the aurora never showed.
When I planned that Fairbanks trip I think I had the impression that Northern Lights just turned on at night, much like a night light.
Aurora swirls over ice museum at Chena Hot Springs Resort, Fairbanks, Alaska — Photo courtesy of Travis Knauss
Wait for it
The lesson of allowing ample time for for clear skies and fickle aurora was delivered again in Northern Norway. Even with many clear nights, the lights stayed away for almost two weeks.
Finally in far Northern Norway I saw green light swirl upwards and sky-write phantasmagoric letters against the black sky. The aurora appeared and disappeared until 3 a.m. That ebb and flow is typical; it's tempting to decide the show is over, especially in the Arctic winds of Kirkenes, Norway, way above the Arctic Circle.
Northern Lights dance over cabins at Snowhotel in Kirkenes, Norway — Photo courtesy of Sze Ming NEOH
Dark road in Iceland
In November, 2015 I chased the aurora in Iceland, catching it in Hnappavellir, Iceland along the Ring Road. By this time my husband and I were good at all the tricks– knowing the aurora is best viewed far from ambient light, and that it can appear in any part of the sky, and that it takes patience and warm clothing to wait out its next appearance. When it showed at 9 p.m., bringing hoots and hurrahs from guests at Fosshotel Glacier, we took off and drove several miles until we found a dirt road where we set up camp with tripods and cameras. I had a few moments of wondering whether the car battery in our well-worn rental car might not start again, but gave up that thought to watch the aurora come and go into the wee hours of morning.
Hurtigruten ships sail the coast of Norway, delivering mail at small towns such Bøda, and offering nights of prime aurora viewing north of the Arctic Circle. — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant
The Northern Lights can show up in any part of the sky, so a 360-degree view increases chances of spotting them.
Ships have that 360-degree view. In Norway I sailed Hurtigruten from Bergen to Kirkenes where I finally saw the lights at the SnowHotel.
Hurtigruten ships depart Bergen daily, running a mail delivery route to little towns along Norway's coast. Even though I didn't see aurora, it was fascinating late at night to see the ship made a delivery to a tiny town. Pitch darkness surrounded a quonset hut where a lone bundled figure received off-loaded packages under a single light.
Viking Ocean Cruises also offers a Northern Lights cruise departing London with itineraries January through March. Crossing the North Sea to Norway gives a good chance to see the lights. The port call at Alta, Norway, known for its clear skies, offers another prime viewing spot, as does the next port, Trømso, Norway.
Viking Ocean Cruises' Northern Lights cruise has an indoor option for aurora viewing. Just grab a comfy lounge beside the covered pool. — Photo courtesy of Viking Ocean Cruises
Fairbanks, Alaska and Trømso, Norway rate tops for having the most nights of visible aurora as well as having airports and accommodations. In Fairbanks, the dead of winter is too cold for hanging out at night. October and March are warmer, though temperatures can still drop below zero.
Lazy aurora-chasers can stay cosy in bed at Fairbanks motels offering aurora wake-up calls. Avid aurora-chasers can park a car at a Fairbanks ski hill, keeping watch from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., 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 even 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
Solar maximum: worth the wait
Currently we are in a "solar minimum," a period during which aurora are less frequent. Our hot-headed sun still occasionally belts out flares, or coronal mass ejections, that can result in head-spinning aurora.
But in general Northern Lights are entering a "shy" period, showing up less often than they will during the next solar maximum starting around 2024. The traveler's best chance for catching Northern Lights show is during years of solar maximum.
Our hot-headed sun
Except we do know it's science. When the sun has explosive events, solar wind packed with highly charged particles travels out into the universe. When those fast-moving particles collide with particles in earth's atmosphere in geomagnetic polar regions–kaboom! We see bursts of color–the Northern Lights.
That's the science. But when you see the aurora, there's a moment of thinking, "Good explanation, but there's something else going on here, too."
A spectacular display of Northern Lights is caught from a Hurtigruten ship in Norway's far north — Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten