Where and when to see aurora borealis¹ in 2012?
May 8, 2011 9:59 AM   Subscribe

I would like to see the Northern Lights at some point in 2012. When and where should I go to maximise my chances?

I'm in the UK so somewhere in Northern Europe would be cheaper to get to, but I understand that Alaska and Northern Canda are also good. As a typical British adult I don't speak any language other than English, so please bear that in mind. My girlfriend isn't that fussed about seeing the aurora so it would be good if it was in an area where there is plenty of other stuff to do.

Does time of year make much of a difference to observing aurora? I'm a teacher so I'm only able to go during the school holidays: three weeks at Christmas and Easter and six weeks in the summer. How long do I need to go for to have a reasonable chance of seeing aurora?

¹ I'm not adverse to looking for the aurora australis but I understand that's a bit more difficult, and it would be further to go.
posted by alby to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Tromsø holds an annual Northern Lights Festival around the end of January. There's a lot of cruises and such as well.
posted by dhartung at 10:04 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live in an area in Northern Canada where I've seen it quite frequently. I can't give advice as to the best place for you to go see it but I wanted to point out that it's going to have to be in the colder months in the Northern Hemisphere as during the summer it pretty much doesn't get dark enough for it to be visible. I actually subscribe to an Aurora Watch alert but when I get the alerts this time of year it feels like a terrible tease.
posted by mireille at 10:06 AM on May 8, 2011

One thing to be aware of is that the aurora activity has been at a minimum for several years. Apparently we are coming out of this solar minimum cycle, but there's still not been a lot of activity.

(I moved to Fairbanks, Alaska two years ago, which is far enough north that there typically is quite good aurora viewing, and I have seen aurora displays about three times. )

If you go to some place like Fairbanks, you can pay money to go on "aurora watching" tours, who drive you out to some place far away from city light, and make sure you have a warm-ish place to try to view the aurora, etc.

The summer is right out. It doesn't get dark enough. Even Easter is probably too late.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:08 AM on May 8, 2011

I've never done it (yet!) but you can see the aurora from Northern Scotland.

There are loads of websites with accommodation and travel details, such as this one

You could easily fly up to Aberdeen, hire a car and get there and back in a winter weekend.
posted by chrispy108 at 10:17 AM on May 8, 2011

U Alaska GeoPhys Inst Aurora Forecast
Mich Tech Aurora Page

You want high solar activity, clear weather wherever you're going to be, and a night long enough for the lights to be visible. These sites have the links you need to make a decent guess. That said, I knew somebody who went to Finland for the last solar maximum, and didn't see the lights.

I live in Maine, have seen them several times, and I encourage your quest. There's a strong correlation between Northern Lights and overcast weather in Maine. Probably because the weather here is consistently, shall we say, lively. But they're magical when they appear.
posted by theora55 at 10:19 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've never done it (yet!) but you can see the aurora from Northern Scotland.

I've had an alert set up with AuroraWatch for a while, but the notice is usually too short, or at the wrong time of year for me to get to the right location.
posted by alby at 10:20 AM on May 8, 2011

seconding Norway. Try to synch with moonless nights.
posted by Eltulipan at 10:43 AM on May 8, 2011

... it would be good if it was in an area where there is plenty of other stuff to do.

This is a little problematic, inasmuch as "other stuff to do" means "significant population", which means "lots of lights at nighttime." Light pollution reduces your chances of being able to see the aurora.

I wouldn't give up entirely on seeing it in the summer, though. One of the most spectacular times I've ever seen the aurora was when I was camping with my parents in the mid-summer. Granted, I was at 51° N in North America, so that helped too.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:32 PM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I saw them in Iceland a couple years ago. There are several companies that do an evening trip out to see them from Reykjavik, and there's plenty else to do in the city the rest of the time.
posted by jacalata at 3:44 PM on May 8, 2011

Kiruna, northern Sweden has the (famous?) Ice-Hotel you can stay in for a few nights.. I have only heard of it.
posted by lundman at 5:00 PM on May 8, 2011

I went to Norway last month with Hurtigruten. Up and down the coast of Norway, from Bergen to Kirkenes, and all the way back down to Bergen again (34 stops on the way up, and another 33 on the way down). It was a wonderful trip, a beautiful and delicious trip, and we saw the Northern Lights twice at night while near Bodo. We saw them at daytime as well a few days later when in the Vesterolen*.

I liked it so much, that I am planning a return trip in October or November when it's mostly dark outside. High season is in the summer starting in May (eg high prices, then higher still in July-August) whereas during the dark season the prices are slashed again.

*Of course you want the night time auroras. The daytime ones are a shade different than the ambient sky, and not as photogenic or ooooh-ah as their night time equivalent. Still striking enough to talk about, though.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:18 PM on May 8, 2011

I was told that it has to be below a certain tempurature to get the Aurora? I saw a bint of it one night in iceland. but it seems that its pretty hit or miss if you are gonig to get to see it.

in terms of other things to do: yeah Iceland has loads of that.
posted by mary8nne at 3:04 AM on May 9, 2011

In March this year I went to Abisko and Kiruna in Sweden to see the aurora. Abisko is supposed to be the driest place in Europe, so your chances of seeing them are supposed to be higher there because there will be less risk of cloud (apparently one of the problems with cruises, Norway or Iceland).

I fell in love with the area, but I am a big fan of wilderness, and am quite happy with nothing to do but mooch and read books. If you want other activities, it might not be so much fun.

Abisko is a tourist centre on the edge of a national park, aside from the aurora a lot of people were there for the skiing. There was also the possibility of activities like dog sledding, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and getting the train into Norway (an amazing trip apparently). Kiruna is a large town, most people there work in Europe's largest (and ugliest) iron-ore mine. You can do many of the same activities there, and there's some attractions: a museum, a tour of the mine, a church, and also the ice hotel.

You could organise it yourself, but we went through this company, who were very good and can organise your own itinerary: http://www.weekendalacarte.co.uk/. The advantage of going through them was that they provided arctic clothing for the duration. It gets cold, it was -37C a few weeks before we were there! Some of the activities we did, and places we stayed, you could borrow clothing for the session, but it’s cold just going to the shops, so you really need it all time.

It was expensive. Sweden is expensive! Arctic Sweden is even more expensive.

Go as near to a new moon as you can. If you can do 4 nights, I think you would see something unless you were really unlucky with the weather. I'd go at February half-term if you are tied to school holidays.

We went for 3 nights, the first 2 in Abisko when it was cloudy and we didn’t see anything. The last night in Kiruna, it was clear and we walked out of town to see them. They weren’t spectacular that night, but it was still an amazing experience. I don’t feel disappointed that we didn’t see a mind-blowing display, for me the environment (we saw wild elk and reindeer everywhere!), the people we met and the experience more than made up for it. But you may be different.
posted by Helga-woo at 6:29 AM on May 9, 2011

You might find this thread I posted a while back helpful. A resource I found helpful was light pollution maps. That map only covers North America so it's not entirely relevant to you but it illustrates the fact that even small towns have a surprisingly large bubble of light around them. Here's what some quick googling for maps that might be a little more relevant to you turned up.

We should be ramping up to the peak of a solar cycle this year or the next so conditions are getting better for seeing auroras. It might be worthwhile to set up a Google alert for Coronal Mass Ejection and try to go out and look the next time one is detected.

All that said, you kind of just have to pay attention to the sky and get lucky and be in the right place at the right time. The only times I've seen them were just a couple random nights when I wasn't looking for them but happened to notice a really subtle glow that covered almost all of the sky, so be on the lookout for more subtle lights than the spectacular shows that you see in all the photoes.
posted by cirrostratus at 9:30 AM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

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