Everything you need to know about seeing the Northern Lights

Just mention the words bucket list and you’re bound to hear ‘Northern Lights’. A gorgeous, spectacular light show among the stars in the night sky proving just what a wondrous place our planet is.

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, is a spectacular light show. In a clear night sky you will see the twirling and swirling of greenish-blue, sometimes pink, sometimes purple rivers of light that seem to flow erratically across the heavens. They move and dance unpredictably and are sometimes hardly noticeable for a while, and then suddenly, they are visible, glowing dazzlingly to the wonderment of all who see them.

The Northern Lights are a phenomenon that result when solar flares, sunspots, or solar storms send charged particles into the Earth’s atmosphere. These particles are drawn through space to the Earth’s two magnetic poles.

Here they crash into molecules of either oxygen or nitrogen, or both, to generate the swirling, flickering, glowing kaleidoscope-like effect of the Aurora Borealis. In the most straightforward scientific explanations, the Northern Lights interact with the solar wind, the Earth’s atmosphere, and the magnetic field.

Interestingly, in the far south of our planet, there is a similar effect known as the Southern Lights or the Aurora Australis. However, this aurora is rarely seen – the area is sparsely inhabited compared to the polar region to the north.

When can I see the Northern Lights?

While the Northern Lights are present for much of the year, there aren’t enough hours of darkness to see them during the summer, even above the Arctic Circle. The winter season in the Arctic lasts from late September to late March / early April. During this time, the Arctic sky is dark enough for the Northern Lights to be visible in the right conditions. The aurora is most active around the Equinoxes in March and September.

Why can you only see the Northern Lights in specific regions?

The main issue preventing visibility is light pollution. Excess light pollution makes auroras more challenging to see and can break them up entirely. This is because the artificial light from cities causes all atmospheric light—whether from stars, planets, the moon, or the Northern Lights—to scatter. Since Aurora is dependent on solar activity, a full moon does not affect the colour of the Northern Lights.

What colour is most common to see in the Northern Lights?

The shortest and most scientifically correct answer would be that most auroras are green. It doesn’t always appear green to the naked eye, though. Sometimes it can be silver in appearance, or even an unusual hue of grey or even white; however, if you point a camera at it, you will usually see green pop out from the sky.

When cruising to view the Aurora Borealis, there are a few essential things to remember. And to help you focus on what you should do to get the very best experience, here are some top tips:

  1. Photography proficiency
  2. Dark areas are paramount
  3. Forget routine
  4. What to wear

Become proficient at night and time-lapse photography

If you would like to bring your memories home in some tangible form, whether by photograph or video; you might want to brush up on your night photography skills. Cell phone technology has advanced to such a degree that it can now store amazing images. Still, we cannot sufficiently emphasise that the better the camera, the better the captured image when photographing the Lights. We suggest that the best practice is to set up your camera at home (or in a dark area near your home) on a tripod, set it to time-lapse, and keep a light log to keep track of the various settings you used. Naturally, check your images (which are accessible these days with digital cameras), adjust your settings accordingly, and do it all over again until you are satisfied.

Find dark areas to view the Lights

The darker the night, the brighter the Northern Lights will be for you. In other words, you may have to trek into the wilderness to escape the ambient light created by built-up areas. There are indeed ideal viewing spots well known to the locals and guides all over Canada, Iceland, Greenland, and Svalbard. Cruise ships offer perfect vantage points – the Northern Lights are brighter at sea, away from light pollution and big cities. Ships are floating observatories, with onboard notifications of sightings provided. Guests can enjoy unobstructed views of the lights from the ship’s decks.

Nothing is routine

Mother Nature can be a spoilsport. Viewing the Northern Lights depends on the weather; it may be raining, snowing, or heavy cloud cover. It’s good advice to put your faith in the experienced cruise staff because they are familiar with aurora forecaster technology and can usually get you to the right spot at the right time. Ships are on the move and may be able to travel past a cloud cover for a clearer view of the skies. But, again, Mother Nature will have the last word, and the night you planned might not work out. Things can always change at the last second, so be prepared to leave your cabin at a moment’s notice!

Wrap up well

Forget winter months back home; this cold is on a new level. The arctic cold can be vicious, and that may seem like stating the obvious, but it’s true! While TV shows you fantastic images of the arctic, it simply cannot let you feel just how cold the place is. Be appropriately prepared for it! Your checklist must include thermal underwear (full-length sleeves, total leg length) and warm and appropriate outer clothing (best worn in layers) to protect you from the freezing temperatures. Gloves must be part of your ‘protective armour’, and should you be photographing or filming the pulsating skies, you’ll need gloves that are up to both the task of keeping your hands warm and allowing you to operate your camera equipment.

The excitement of the Northern Lights is addictive

You will be amazed as you witness vibrant greens and purples dance across the sky, twisting and turning in dramatic ebbs and flows. All who witness the Aurora Borealis become captivated under its spell, transfixed by the magical, awe-inspiring display. This is the most incredible show on Earth, and no two shows are alike.

You have to see the Northern Lights for yourself to appreciate their beauty. Photographs and videos merely touch the surface when showing this exquisite natural phenomenon.

Northern Lights Promise by Hurtigruten

“The beautiful Aurora Borealis is Mother Nature’s ultimate light show.”

Hurtigruten knows that no trip to the Arctic Circle will be complete without experiencing this highlight at least once on your life journey. Should the Northern Lights not appear on your cruise to Norway, Hurtigruten will give you another six or 7-day Classic Voyage, FREE OF CHARGE. This promise applies to select voyages between 01 October and 31 March – Ts & Cs apply.

Want to see the Northern Lights for yourself? Contact Whitestar Cruise & Travel for more information.