When Can You See the Northern Lights?

By Teo Spengler

Sneaking up on the light show of a lifetime

When Can You See the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights have been described to look like iridescent finger paints being smudged across the sky by huge, invisible hands. Or unearthly ghosts dancing and swaying in flowing robes. In fact, when you're gazing at the magical lights in the night sky, you're really viewing the wreck of charged particles from the sun colliding with gas molecules from earth. Seeing the Northern Lights ranks high on many bucket lists. If this includes yours, read up on the best places to see them and keep some time open between very late winter and early spring.

Q: What are the Northern Lights?

A: Northern Lights appear above the magnetic poles in the north and south. The dancing lights near the North Pole are called aurora borealis. Those near the South Pole are called aurora australis.

What causes the greens, reds, blues and yellows in the night skies? Electrically charged particles come from the sun into the earth's atmosphere and smack into gas particles. This collision creates the Northern Lights. The colors of the lights depend on the type of gas involved. If the particles are oxygen molecules, the lights are an eerie yellowish-green. If the oxygen is high above earth, the auroras are red. Blue or purple Northern Lights are caused by nitrogen collisions.

Q: Where are the best views?

A: Although sometimes people in the continental U.S. are lucky enough to get a glimpse of the aurora borealis, generally this is a delight reserved for those who venture farther north. In North America, areas in northwest Canada like the Yukon Territory are excellent viewing locations. Central to northern Alaska also makes the list. Just fly into Fairbanks and head north.

If you'd prefer to track the Northern Lights in Europe, the Scandinavian countries take top honors. Visit the northern sections of Norway, Sweden and Finland and you'll find lots of Northern Lights tours. The area in northern Norway around Tromso is popular, as is Abisko National Park in Sweden.

Unless you are truly determined, you may as well mark Russia off the list. The area lacks tourist facilities, and getting there is difficult. However, Iceland will make Northern Lights tourists feel welcome.

Q: When is the ideal time to go?

A: Areas in the far north tend to get 24-hour sun in the summers, and Northern Lights need dark skies for contrast. That means you'll want to visit when the skies are dark and, hopefully, clear. Since skies in winter and spring generally have less cloud cover than autumn in the north regions, consider going up between December and April.

Light of any type detracts from the beauty of the experience. Be sure you put some distance between yourself and city lights. And, if possible, schedule the trip when there will be a new moon. That makes the sky a black velvet palate for the magic of this magnificent phenomenon.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between French Basque Country and California.