What Nobody wants to tell you about the Northern Lights
Aurora borealis, northern lights or foxfire – whatever you call them, they’re a natural phenomena on many a traveler’s wish list.
Requiring a remarkable coincidence of clear skies and high solar activity, it can be a difficult thing to witness. Still, we brave the cold, the considerable expense and the possibility of missing them completely, for the mere chance of gazing up at the sky in awe as the lights dance above us.
Some fail. Some succeed. And us?
We saw them on our very first night in the aurora belt. It was -27, the skies were clear, and aurora activity was high, so we knew there was a good chance of seeing them in all their glory. Staff at our hotel claimed that they’d shown themselves 3 nights in a row, so our expectations were high. We bundled up, getting more and more excited with each layer of clothes, and stepped out onto frozen Lake Inari, eyes turned upwards.
Within minutes, we spotted a light greenish glow in the sky, but couldn’t be sure if our eyes were deceiving us, or if this was a trick of light pollution and hope. Slowly, the glow began to deepen and move and shift across the sky. I wouldn’t call it dancing exactly, but there was definitely something happening in the sky.
From behind us, a group of Chinese female tourists, begin oohing and aahing and giggling, their laughter, making us chuckle too. It was obvious that they were super excited about seeing the lights.
I wish I could say we felt the same.
But what we see above us is underwhelming. Pretty, but underwhelming. There. I said it.
I didn’t think it could happen, but it’s possible to witness the northern lights in person and feel somewhat bored. Truthfully, the photos we took of the aurora are MUCH more vivid and dramatic than what we saw in person, and I am definitely not a professional photographer.
Of course, with northern lights tourism making up a huge percentage of the industry of Lapland and Finnmark, no brochure or website is going to tell you that most of the time, the lights are kind of ho-hum. What we saw, was a green glow moving across the sky, but in kind of a blobby way, not a flickering, dancing way. I’m not saying that you won’t see the fantastical lights show if you come here, but odds are slim…even if you do manage to catch the lights in some form.
In fact, just 2 days before we arrived at Engholm Husky in Finnmark, Norway, they’d been treated to a 2 or 3 hour show of epic proportions. Yes, it was in fact, the very day, we’d been watching our green glow blob across the sky in Finnish Lapland.
If only, we’d come north 2 days earlier…if only…
Our frustration grew exponentially over the next 2 nights, as we were treated to a sky, dense with a layer of clouds, and reports of extremely high auroral activity, that we of course, could not see. The following 2 nights were reasonably clear, meaning you could see stars, but auroral activity had dropped to almost zero, making it impossible for anything, but the camera to catch the very faintest of green glows in the sky. Meanwhile, people as far south as Scotland were seeing the lights. ARGHGHGH!!!
Looking back with the advantage of hindsight, and knowledge of what it’s like to travel in the Arctic Circle, there are a lot of things I would’ve done differently to give us a better shot at seeing the lights the way we wanted to see them…because they were there, WE were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Tips for Maximizing Your Chance of Seeing an Epic Northern Lights Show
1) Go in the middle of winter, not at the end
Global warming is a fact. During our time in the Arctic Circle, temperatures reached as high as +5. Snow was melting everywhere during the day and freezing at night, basically creating the world’s largest skating rink. Snow should not be melting in the Arctic Circle at the end of February. At least I don’t think so.
The point is that colder weather, usually means clearer skies. Not always, but usually. Go in the thick of winter, and I think the odds of clearer skies will be greater. It certainly won’t rain…like it did for us one day.
2) Get as far north as you possibly can
We were 2 hours south of Karasjok on the fateful day that the lights appeared, and it made all the difference in the world. Where we got a green blob floating across the sky, they got 2-3 hours of the most intense lights they’d seen in awhile. One staffer described them as, “like flames.” Gahhhh!!! Go north, young traveler.
3) Check auroral activity levels daily and book hotels on the fly (preferably an igloo or aurora bubble)
The Aurora Service website tracks daily auroral activity for Europe, North America and Australis. It provides both hourly and 3 day forecasts, and I found it to be shockingly accurate.
If I could do this trip all over again, I wouldn’t have booked a single hotel in the Arctic Circle in advance (don’t worry, there is no danger of not finding someplace to stay). Instead, I would base myself in a town like Ivalo (which is not touristy at all and a little more budget friendly), check the aurora readings daily, and then book a hotel last minute, based on the clarity of the sky.
Ideally, even though they are really expensive, I would book a glass igloo or an aurora bubble. It was -27 the night we saw the lights, and we could really only bear to be outside for 1 hour before we had to go inside. Maybe the lights got stronger that night, who knows? But we were too cold to stay out all night to check.
Alternative – Rent a Car.
4) Rent a car
You need to be mobile in order to get away from light pollution and get to where the aurora can best be seen. Most aurora tours start at 8:00PM, only last for 2 hours and cost a minimum of 99 euros per person. Statistically, the aurora is most often seen around midnight, and a car will give you the freedom to explore at will. It won’t be cheap (nothing is up there), but it’ll still be cheaper than a guided tour.
If we’d rented a car, we’d have been able to drive further north to look for a more vivid version of the northern lights. Added bonus, you can get inside and warm up when required.
5) Bring a lot of money or something to amuse yourself
Honestly, aurora hunting is kind of boring. Most of the time you are just sitting around inside, waiting for nightfall.
There are a lot of winter activities you can participate in, like snowmobiling, dog sledding, skiing or snow-showing, but all of these things require huge amounts of cash. We weren’t willing to shell out $350 to go snowmobiling for 3 hours, or $700 to hang out with reindeer herders for a few hours, so most of the time, we were just relaxing in the hotel, reading or playing backgammon. There’s A LOT of downtime.
Of course, we won’t be doing this trip again for quite some time, if ever. With the exception of our safari in the Serengeti, which included a private guide, park fees, and full board tents inside perhaps the worlds most premier nature reserve, this is THE most expensive trip we’ve ever done…only we didn’t get to see zebras and lions in the wild.
I’m pretty sure the green glowing blob wasn’t worth it.
What do you think? Would you spend thousands of dollars just for a shot at seeing the northern lights?