For those who live in the Southern Hemisphere, aurora borealis, or the northern lights, is a phenomenon only seen in photographs or on video. Unless we’ve been lucky enough to be within the prime viewing zone — from latitudes 65 to 72 in the Northern Hemisphere — sometime between November and March, seeing these amazing natural lights is impossible.
Created by solar winds interacting with the Earth’s magnetic fields, the northern lights are best viewed on clear, cold nights — away from any other type of light. While the best possible viewing spot is in the remote Arctic regions, away from all civilization, heading to the North Pole isn’t exactly practical for the average traveller.
The good news, though, is that there are some slightly less far-flung destinations that afford a nearly ideal vantage point for seeing the lights — and a few other interesting attractions.
Several locations in Scandinavia offer prime light viewing. For those who want to stay close to civilization — or at least a fast-growing city — Bodø is close to two national parks and several nature reserves that offer the ideal viewing conditions for the northern lights. While the burgeoning arts and culture scene and gourmet food are also draws, Bodø is just 33 km away from Saltstraumen, the world’s fastest maelstrom.
If you want a more rustic experience, head farther north to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. This is not a trip for the faint of heart, as Svalbard is the world’s northernmost settlement and located 1,600 kilometres from mainland Norway, well within the Arctic Circle, but the views of aurora borealis here are unmatched.
Canada’s smallest province offers unspoiled natural beauty and unobstructed views of the northern lights. The lights have been seen here as early as September and all the way until April, but the prime viewing time is January through March. In the capital city of Whitehorse, you can view the lights at the Northern Lights Viewing Centre, a high-tech facility that offers information about the lights as well as ideal viewing conditions. When you’re not staring at the night sky, you can spend your days snowmobiling, dogsledding and ice fishing, or combine a trip to Whitehorse with a visit to Vancouver for less rustic amenities and activities.
Scientifically speaking, Abisko, in Sweden’s Lapland, is the ideal viewing site for the northern lights, in some part due to the “blue hole of Abisko,” an area where the skies always remain clear regardless of the weather surrounding it. As in Canada, the Abisko Sky Station offers a viewing station protected from the cold where you can see the lights and learn more about them. Many travellers combine a visit to Abisko with a stay at the world-famous Icehotel outside of Kiruna.
Away from the city lights of Fairbanks, within the Alaskan wilderness, you are virtually guaranteed to see the northern lights. In fact, if you visit between December and March and stay for three days, the Fairbanks Visitors Bureau predicts that you have an 80 per cent chance of seeing the lights; you also have a very good chance of seeing the lights during the spring and fall equinoxes or during a new moon. For a horizon-to-horizon view of the lights, head to Ester Dome, or visit the Aurora Borealis Lodge 32 kilometres outside of town for a warm and comfortable view.
Other places around the world
Spots in Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Greenland, for example — offer prime viewing opportunities, and there have been reports of the lights being seen in Scotland and the northernmost continental U.S. For the most awe-inspiring views, though, you’ll need to head to one of these more remote locations. If viewing the lights is high on your list of “must-do” life experiences though, making the trip to the hinterlands of Scandinavia or Canada will be well worth the time and expense.
About the Author: Growing up in Canada, writer Justine Donnelly witnessed the aurora borealis on a few occasions. Justine now lives in Australia and is saving for a trip to the Icehotel.