There are no guarantees that you will see the Northern Lights. However, with good planning and familiarising yourself with factors that help determine when and where the Northern Lights will be dancing in the sky, there is a high chance that your hunt for the Northern Lights will be successful.
Seek the darkness
If you are searching for places where the Northern Lights often appear, head towards the Northern Lights Oval in the period from September to April.
The Northern Lights are present within the Northern Lights Oval around the clock and throughout the year. However, during the day and on bright summer nights under the Midnight Sun, it’s too light to see them. The best period to experience the Northern Lights is from early September to early April.
North of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not rise above the horizon during the middle of winter (from around mid-November to mid-January). This period is called the Polar Night. This time of the year provides many hours of favourable, dark conditions for Northern Lights observation. Don’t be intimidated by the Polar Night. Even during the shortest days, there are a few hours of light during the middle of the day.
The intense use of light in the form of streetlights, car headlights, signs and house lights in towns and cities is less suited to deriving the full benefits of a dark night sky filled with colourful Northern Lights. Try to visit locations outside the town centre with as little artificial lighting as possible.
In the evenings around the full moon, stronger Northern Lights activity is needed in order to see the Northern Lights as clearly as at other times of the month. However, the moon and the natural moonlight combine to make the nature-based and Northern Lights experience extremely magical and special.
Hunt in the evening and at night
The Northern Lights shines most often and strongest between 20:00 and 2:00 (8pm and 2am), but it is also possible to experience the Northern Lights before and after this period. The fact that you never know for sure when or for how long the Northern Lights will appear makes them even more fascinating.
Northern Lights cycles
The sun has many variations and one of the best known is the 11-year solar cycle in which once every 11 years the sun enters a period of solar maximum with many large sunspots and high solar activity. The solar maximum mostly benefits areas where the Northern Lights are rarely seen as the Northern Lights Oval extends further south during this period. Consequently, the solar maximum has little impact on areas that are usually located within the Northern Lights Oval.
Norwegian scientist Truls Lynne Hansen refers to the fact that scientists in Northern Finland, close to the Norwegian border, have measured the actual Northern Lights outbreaks over many years and during several Northern Lights cycles. Despite their efforts, the scientists have not found any correlation between the 11-year solar cycles and actual observations of the Northern Lights in the area around the Northern Lights Oval.
When the well known British actress Joanna Lumley visited Tromsø and Northern Norway in 2008, she saw several powerful and magical outbreaks of the Northern Lights even though it was a year with low solar activity.
Strong Northern Lights activity generally occurs approximately every 27 days. This is due to the fact that the Northern Lights are strongest when an active area on the surface of the sun is facing the Earth. The sun rotates once every 27 days.
Due to a partially unexplained correlation between the sun’s magnetic field and the angle of the Earth’s rotational axis, there tends to be particularly powerful Northern Lights activity in the months around the spring and autumn equinoxes, i.e. in February-March and September-October.
Search for clear skies
The weather is one of the most important factors to consider when hunting for the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights are at least 80 km above the Earth’s surface and the highest clouds we see are no more than 5-10 km high. Consequently, the sky must be cloudless or partly cloudless in order to see the Northern Lights. It may be possible to see the Northern Lights if there is low cloud cover, but clear sky is preferable.
There are relatively large variations in the weather within the Northern Lights Oval. The inland areas often have more stable weather than the coastal areas. However, the inland areas can be less accessible and the winter temperatures can be much lower than closer to the coast.
Taking this into account, many people prefer Northern Norway and Tromsø as a base for their Northern Lights chase. Tromsø has excellent flight connections and, due to the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, the area offers relatively mild temperatures. Tromsø is often referred to as “the mild Northern Lights area”.
Take look at the table that shows the average temperature and precipitation in the Northern Lights months in selected places in the Tromsø region and around the world.