Seeing the Northern Lights seems to be on majority of people’s bucket lists (including mine).. and for good reason! The aurora borealis is only visible from countries located well to the north, close to the Arctic. I recently got the opportunity to be in Iceland, where seeing them was a real possibility. I was in the country for 8 days so automatically assumed I’d see them without much doubt. However, after arriving there, I soon realized it takes some effort and a lot of patience to see the northern lights.. SO, I am writing this to help those who would also like to maximize their chances of seeing the aurora borealis.
First and foremost, the universe has to be on your side. 3 conditions beyond your control must be in your favor:
- The skies have to be clear. Pretty obvious, but if the skies are overcast or rainy/snowy, the clouds will block your view of the aurora.
- The temperature has to be cold enough. Although going somewhere in winter will probably ensure the temperature to be on your side, you never know.
- The solar activity has to be active. This is the most important one.. if there is no solar activity, there is no lights.. regardless of the first 2 conditions. I downloaded an app called “Aurora”, which sent me notifications on my phone of where the activity would be most active and when. The lights could be active and visible in one town, but not in another town close by. I recommend the app.
If these 3 conditions are on your side, then you can begin to “chase” them (or if you’re lucky, just look outside). You will want to be completely away from city lights. For this reason, I recommend staying/sleeping outside of a main city if seeing the northern lights is a high priority for you. The city lights (even just small parking lot lights) can affect the visibility greatly/may prevent you from seeing them at all. The darker the better.
The aurora can be visible anytime after sunset until sunrise. It is unlikely that you will stare at the sky for 12 hours straight, so I recommend getting an app or following a website that tells you when the activity has the greatest chance… these can vary per location. For Iceland, one of their northern lights forecast website is http://www.northernlightsiceland.com/northern-lights-forecast/. The number in the upper right hand corner is the activity number.. the higher the better and brighter!
If you are able to stay awake late or all night, power to you. If you fall asleep at night like most humans do, do not worry.. just do as follows. If you are camping, or in a van, or in a hostel/airB&B, I recommend setting an alarm every 1-2 hours (on nights that are clear) to get up and look. Even if the probability is low. It will be hard to drag yourself out of your warm comfy bed each time… but if you don’t, you could sleep right through them and miss your opportunity to see them!!!
If you are staying in a hotel, ask them if they provide wake up calls when the northern lights come out. This was a life saver for me!! The first few nights of my stay had no chance of seeing the lights, so when a night finally had a chance I told them I didn’t care what time it was, just to be sure to call me. I stayed up until midnight one night and saw nothing, then set an alarm for 2 am and saw nothing and fell asleep after 2am so disappointed. However, at 4am my hotel called my room to tell me they were out! Without their wakeup call I would have slept right through them. (As well as the following 2 nights at 9pm & 2am!!).
Even if the probability is low, still ask for the call. The probability was low the first night when they called me, so I was so excited at the wake up call I hopped out of bed and ran outside with no gloves or warm clothes!! When solar activity is low, the northern lights can still be out they just won’t be as bright in the sky. That first night I saw them, I told the hotel I couldn’t see them.. but they insisted they were out. It just looked like gray clouds to my naked eye. I decided to snap some pictures anyways, and low and behold the gray was actually green in the pictures. (The following night, however, I could see more much with my naked eye). Point being, make sure to take a picture even if you can hardly see them.. you never know what it will capture!!
Once outside with the active aurora, you will want to find the darkest area. Even though I was in a very small town, the parking lot lights obscured my viewing a bit and didn’t help my pictures. So I got into the car both nights and drove toward the aurora until I was in a pitch black section of the road (one night up on a quiet hill, the other night literally pulled on the side of the main road). Even though it was 4am and 2am, and whatever time that I was half awake in complete zombie mode and absolutely so freezing cold, it did not matter to me. It was so worth it. Even though I didn’t get to see the purple/bright colors that some do, it was far more than most ever get to see in their life. Seeing the lights in the sky and change shape so quickly was something I will never forget.
One more thing that you should know beforehand is you CANNOT take pictures of the aurora on a phone. You need a camera that has long shutter speeds (long exposure). If you try to take a picture on your phone it will just come out black. My tripod happened to break that day (no luck was on my side) so I tied my camera to my tripod with hair ties!! It prevented me from taking amazing photos, but I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from snapping that long awaited picture for my memories.
CONCLUSION: Seeing the aurora borealis takes work and takes patience. It’s not guaranteed, and you cannot take a picture of them on a phone. It needs to be clear, cold, dark, and active. You need to be up at night and in the right place. But it is so worth the time and lack of sleep…. Hence why they call it “chasing the northern lights”.