Travelers Talk: Northern Lights Spotting

Aurora Borealis in Iceland. Photo Credit: Heather Buckley (

The aurora lights phenomena have mystified onlookers since the ancient times when they were believed to be heavenly warriors, ill omens and playful animal spirits.

But what were known to be otherworldly manifestations are actually charged particles from the sun pulled by the earth's North and South magnetic poles. The collision of these particles with the atmosphere cause pulses of colored lights: Aurora.

The aurora's complex, dynamic appearance depend on the viewer's distance from the polar regions. They vary in intermingling waves of white, curtains of green lights and the rarer sways of violets and reds stretching across the horizons. The lights emanating from the northern polar region, called the Aurora Borealis, are most visible in Alaska, Canada, Russia and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden).

What makes this natural light display even more exciting is their unpredictability. No one can tell for sure when and where they are appearing and how long they would be staying on if so. There is also the challenge of traveling late at night and staying awake for a glimpse of the elusive lights.

But that's the thrill of the hunt. And in the end, the effort of spotting the earth's greatest light show is all worth it.

How to Chase the Aurora

Clear dark skies are prerequisites for a vivid aurora sighting, making the best season to catch the lights between late autumn to early spring (from mid September to early April). Aurora displays are even more intense in a solar maximum period; the next one is due in 2013. During this period, the swirls of the aurora lights are at their brightest, reaching even as far as the Caribbean.

Chances of observing the lights are still highest up north.

Aurora sightings cannot be guaranteed but the best possibilities can be narrowed by an organized tour. The Northern Lights Mystery tour in Reykjavik checks weather conditions. If the sky is heavily clouded in the evening, the tour will not take place. A second tour is given free of charge for passengers who are unable to see the aurora for the first time.

Fairbanks also gives ample opportunities for aurora-spotting from an off-the-grid Alaska cabin, the Murphy Dome or a viewing lodge. Alternatively, northern light viewing can be combined with an Arctic Circle tour, dinner and more, leaving no dull moment.

Traveler Experiences

Northern Light by Jena A.

Traveler Jena was able to spot the aurora in her Northern Lights Mystery tour  and was successful in taking photos of these fast-moving lights. Jena shares:

I would very much recommend this tour for its organisation, helpful and informative staff. On the first occasion, the tour was cancelled due to unfavourable weather condition, then it was rescheduled promptly for the following day. Again we didn't manage to see the light. Third time, we were lucky to see Aurora Borealis glowing its green and red colours as in the photos attached. It was definitely a memorable experience. A must do.
- Jena A., United Kingdom - December 29, 2012

Northern Lights from Reykjavik by Jena A.

Anna, Andrew and Sharif were fortunate to see the lights as well.

The service in this tour was very kindly and the tour is wonderful if you have luck. It was (true in) my case. I would recommend everybody.
- Anna T., Spain

We had a great time and the guide was very helpful and informative. We were very lucky and saw an amazing display of the lights, we watched them for at least 1 and a half hours and only had to stop because it was too cold to stand outside any longer.
- Andrew B., United Kingdom

The tour was very well organised and informative about the lights, with excellent and helpful tour guides. When the tour was cancelled due to bad weather, it was promptly rescheduled for another day, and if we didn't see the lights, we could go again on another night until we did. And I did see them!!
- Sharif I., United Kingdom

From Sharif I.

And even those who weren't able to see the lights enjoyed the activity nonetheless.

We did not see northern lights but guide was passionate and visits interesting despite everything
- Christian M., France

Excellent tour guide, knowledgeable, great sense of humour. Did not manage to see lights but still enjoyed trip.
- Elaine S., United Kingdom

Milky Way by Jena A.

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