The northern lights (also known as Aurora Borealis) are the holy grail of skywatching. Magical and mystical. You never really know when, where or if you are going to see them. There are times of the year when the chance of seeing the northern lights is higher, but even so, it is not a guarantee that you will witness this phenomenon. Maybe the sky is cloudy or maybe mother earth will simply not show them.
Travelling a long way up north to see the northern lights and then not being able to see them can be very frustrating. Luckily there are plenty of other activities waiting for you. Below you have the full guide for a successful winter trip, with tips and tricks on the northern lights and other winter activities.
Aurora Borealis, a natural phenomenon
The northern lights are caused by the interaction of solar particles and the Earth’s atmosphere. The sun showers the Earth with its particles, but due to our planet’s magnetic field, these particles are transported to the poles, both North and South, where this remarkable light show occurs. As the particles interact with the atmosphere, they deposit energy and cause fluorescence. It is the chemical composition of the particles that determines the colour of the auroras. The most common colours in the Aurora Borealis are red and green. The first is produced by nitrogen molecules, while the second comes from oxygen molecules.
The earliest record of the northern lights is in a 30,000-year-old cave painting in France, but it took centuries of research to understand this fabulous phenomenon. Still, this natural occurrence is not fully understood. You can also imagine how it must have been for our ancient ancestors. They saw the sky turning vivid green in wonder and awe, and created their own whimsical explanations, leading to many myths. Aware of its origin or not, people have been fascinated by the northern lights for centuries.
Fun fact: The Vikings thought that the aurora was light reflected off of the Valkyries’ battle armor while others thought it was created by the last breath of soldiers dying on the battle fields.
Northern lights and their siblings’ Southern lights
It was the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei who in 1619 gave the northern lights its other name – Aurora Borealis. Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn and Boreas the Greek god of the north wind.
In the southern hemisphere, the same phenomenon is called Aurora Australis or simply southern lights. Sometimes you can even hear the name Aurora Polaris, as it is a phenomenon occurring near the poles.
Until recently, scientists thought that both auroras were similar and mirrored, but in 2009 the Norwegian researcher Nikolai Østgaard found out that it’s not the case. Although the magnetic field lines on the Earth are symmetric, the sun’s magnetic field also has an influence and contributes to an uneven distribution of the particles on the poles. The show of light is therefore usually different in the northern or southern hemisphere.
Fun fact: The Auroras are equally beautiful, but the light of the Aurora Australis is harder to see since it occurs in less accessible places like Antarctica or some remote areas in Australia.
When and where to go for increased chances of seeing Aurora Borealis?
The winter months, from September to March are the best to spot the northern lights. To increase your chance of seeing them you should travel above the Arctic Circle. The first northern lights of the year are usually seen around Kiruna, but when the winter is at its full power in January, they can be spotted throughout Swedish Lapland. Abisko is among the most popular places to see the northern lights. On clear winter nights, the Aurora Borealis is visible from around 6 pm to 2 am, but the best show often comes between 10 and 11 pm.
K-index is your friend
The planetary K-index (sometimes also seen as Kp index) is an indicator of the aurora’s strength, working a little like a predictor of the northern lights. The K-index goes from 0 to 9. Small numbers, 0-2, mean the lights are most likely only visible near the poles, so up north. Middle numbers, 3-5, mean the aurora moves away from the poles and becomes brighter, more active, and with more formations. An index number higher than 5 is very rare and almost never occurs.
Practically, this means that if you are in Abisko or Kiruna, a K-index of 2 already gives you a good chance of spotting a great show of the Northern Lights. However, if you are on lower latitudes, you need a higher index to see the Aurora Borealis.
See the northern lights without traveling
Two options allow you to see the Northern lights without travelling far. The first is from your area and the other one is from your sofa. What? Is that possible you may ask… Kind of.
In optimal conditions, it’s possible to see the northern lights all over the country. Even in Skåne! Of course, the further south you are, the more difficult or unlikely it is to see them. But it’s not impossible. Optimal conditions mean a high K-index, a clear sky, a dark evening, and no light pollution. If you live in a city you probably have to go away from all the city lights. Still, travelling for half an hour is a lot easier than going all the way up north. If you are lucky enough, perhaps like Newbie Lisa, who lives in the countryside outside of Stockholm, you might even catch this amazing light show from your window. Now THAT is quality of life!
What if you live in the south and not in the countryside? Can you still see the show from your living room? Absolutely, using a little help from Lapland Media and their live cameras. Click on the website and enjoy live images from Abisko’s National Park. I’m watching the lights right now, from my living room in Gothenburg.
If you search online for Aurora Borealis or northern lights you will get wonderful images of skies covered in vivid green and purple. You might also see some videos of dancing lights moving around in the atmosphere. Although these images are real, the auroras do not look like that every night. Sometimes they are seen more like faint colours and not as intense. Another important factor to account for is that our human eye is not the same as your camera. Therefore, if you are planning on taking some pictures (eh… who wouldn’t…) it’s important to look into your camera settings. Here are two tricks that can help improve the quality of your photos. And yes, these will help even if you are photographing with your phone.
- Hold the camera still – it is dark outside, and you are capturing light kilometers away from you, so your camera needs to be still to collect as much light as possible. You might want to use a tripod or simply place your camera on the ground, stone, or anything else steady.
- Long exposure time – in broad daylight your camera captures an image in milliseconds, but it needs a lot longer to capture weak light in the dark. Optimal exposure times depend on the intensity of the aurora and on your camera/phone. Try between 10 and 30 seconds, which is usually enough. Modern phones set this setting automatically.
You can also do like Newbie Akanksha, who booked a night Aurora tour when staying in Abisko. Not only did she have a cosy evening with a campfire, but she managed to turn the faint Aurora light into an awesome picture.
Aurora forecast apps are another piece of technology good to have at hand when looking for northern lights. Apps like Aurora forecast 3D, My Aurora forecast and Spaceweather Live, among others, can help predict when the Northern lights are visible in a certain location in Sweden.
Other winter activities
If you have read the article until here, you have probably understood that no matter how much you want to see the amazing Aurora Borealis, it is not only up to you. Sometimes it is simply not possible. Therefore, the very best tip I can give you is to not make your trip up north solely about the northern lights. There are plenty of other fun winter activities that you can enjoy, making your trip worth it, even if you don’t spot the light show. Here are some possible options.
Probably the easiest winter activity. The equipment is simple, easy to put on, and can be rented in tourist stations and even some hotels and guesthouses. With some snowshoes on you can easily walk over snow and explore, for instance, Abisko’s National Park. If you like hiking, this will be similar but probably more special, since you will be doing it in a wintery landscape.
Why not take advantage of all the winter ice around and climb up a frozen waterfall? You can buy a package that includes a guide and all the necessary equipment. You don’t need previous experience either and can learn what you need on the spot.
Dog sledding adventure
If you are looking to experience the winter landscape without using your legs as much, this is the right activity. You can slide in a sleigh driven by friendly Siberian huskies and enjoy the glittering snow-covered forests in a true wilderness adventure. There are all kinds of tours from a few hours to over a week, in bright daylight or on the hunt for the Northern lights.
How about staying in a dome where you can stay warm while looking at the landscape outside? If you are lucky, you might even be able to see the Northern lights from your bed. If they don’t show up that night, this is still a pretty cool and unique experience.
Off pist skiing in Riksgränsen
Looking for a bit more adrenaline? No worries, in Lapland you can go off-pist skiing. Yes, you will need downhill skiing experience for this one, but if you do have it, what an amazing opportunity. Off-pist skiing is basically skiing in untouched snow, sliding down the mountain as if you were the first human to ever do that. An incredible way to explore nature and experience Swedish winter.
Newbie Michaela has visited Riksgränsen, an area in Lapland known for its off-pist resorts. Read about her experience here.
Learn about Sami heritage
The Sámi people are the indigenous people of the Sápmi region which encompasses northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola peninsula in Russia. They have been in the region for over 2000 years and their traditions, language, and culture are very well preserved. Their history is remarkable as they have not only survived the harsh Arctic winters but also attempts to force assimilation through political means. Visit the open-air museum in Márkanbáiki and learn about these incredible people
Do all activities in Lapland involve being cold in freezing temperatures? No, not really. When you have enough of the white outdoors, you can stay in and drink some hot chocolate or enjoy a good sauna session. You can also visit the famous Ice Hotel in Kiruna, even if you are not staying there. The hotel actually melts in the summer, which makes it an even more unique tourist attraction.
Lapland might be far away for most of us Newbies living in Sweden. Even so, it is a very unique place, well worth a visit with plenty of things to do. The bonus is that if you are lucky, you might even witness the best light show of your life – the Aurora Borealis.
Dress warm and enjoy!