It’s a dream of many to see the glowing lights of the aurora dancing in the sky. The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are one of the world’s most incredible natural phenomena, and feature prominently on travellers’ bucket lists all over the world. But what causes this breath-taking display?
The lights are caused by solar wind (a stream of charged particles leaving the Sun) and Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, interacting. EarthSky, a website dedicated to all things space-related, describes the process: “When the charged particles from the sun strike atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, they excite those atoms, causing them to light up.” One particularly fascinating aspect of the lights is the various colours. The aurora may appear in a huge range of hues, and this all depends on which gases the particles from the sun collide with.
While we have been fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the aurora in the UK, it’s a rare occurrence. For the best chance of seeing the lights, you’ll need to head north towards the Arctic Circle. Generally, the best time to see the aurora is between September and April. With this in mind, we put together an article on the best places to see the northern lights on your cruise holiday.
Norway is perhaps most famous for its dramatic fjords. Towering mountains appear to drop into the still water, creating an overwhelmingly beautiful backdrop. If you are cruising through the fjords at the right time, and in good weather conditions, you will have a chance to see the lights. Cruises stop at the likes of Bodø, Svolvaer, Tromsø and the Lofoten Islands, all renowned for being excellent places to spot the aurora.
Tromsø, considered to be the home of the Northern Lights, is a spectacular city in northern Norway. Its perfect position above the Arctic Circle means it’s fairly likely that you’ll catch a glimpse of green and purple while visiting on holiday. Vanessa Brune of travel and lifestyle blog Snow in Tromsø, moved to the city of Tromsø in the Norwegian Arctic for her studies: “I’ve always been fascinated by the North and felt it natural to write a blog about a region I’m so passionate about!” said Vanessa. “Over the years, I’ve covered quite a few places on there – from Swedish Lapland to Greenland, Iceland, and even Svalbard in the High Arctic. I also blog about Scandinavian culture and what it means to live in Norway and have just swapped life in Tromsø with life in Stavanger on Norway’s west coast.”
Having spent so much time in Norway, we asked Vanessa to tell us about her experiences of seeing the aurora: “I have lived in Tromsø for three years, so honestly I can’t even tell how many times I’ve seen the aurora. Quite often for sure! As a local, I often watched them from my favourite place – the comfort and warmth of my own home! When the aurora is really strong, the lights can be seen from the city centre after all. However, I also admired a couple of fantastic Northern Lights displays on my travels! For example in Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands or the area around Bodø in Northern Norway.”
As Vanessa has been fortunate enough to experience the aurora on so many occasions, we asked her if she had any advice for people wishing to see the Northern Lights while on a cruise holiday:
“Be patient and schedule enough time up north on your trip! Some months are better suited to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights than others, depending on where you’re headed. The polar night season in Tromsø, for instance, is not the best time to see the Northern Lights as the weather often is very bad with lots of rain or heavy snowfall. If it’s only possible for you to travel during that time though you need to make sure to stay in the area (above the Arctic Circle that is) for at least 4 nights in order to increase your chances of seeing the aurora.”
Also on the coast in northern Norway, Bodø is another great place to see the Northern Lights. Generally the lights can be seen in Bodø on dark, clear evenings from September to April. While in many locations it’s best to be away from the town or city, here you can spot the aurora from the pier in the harbour. Eager adventurers can go to Rønvikfjellet Mountain a few kilometres outside the city for uninterrupted views of the night sky.
Scottish Highlands and Islands
As northern Scotland is on the same latitude at Stavanger in Norway, it’s actually a great place to see the aurora borealis. The Scottish Highlands and Islands feel a world away from the rest of the UK. Mountains rise up from the lochs and tower over the coastlines, with remote communities nestled between them. Looking out for the northern lights, or ‘mirrie dancers’ as they say in Scotland, takes a lot of patience. But seeing them on these wild and rugged islands is one of the most magical experiences in the world.
A cruise to Scotland will take you to some of the best places to see the lights – Lerwick in Shetland and Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands. If you’re planning on aurora hunting on your trip to Scotland, it’s definitely worth following AuroraWatch UK. This free service run by specialists at Lancaster University issues alerts when the aurora borealis might be visible from the UK. We were fortunate enough to speak to Dr. Nathan Case from the Department of Physics at Lancaster University, about their work:
“AuroraWatch UK operates several ‘magnetometers’ located across the UK. Magnetometers are scientific instruments that record disturbances to the Earth’s magnetic field cause by the aurora. The stronger the disturbance we measure, the stronger the aurora is likely to be and the further south in the UK it is likely to be seen. We issue our alerts in real-time via email, Facebook, Twitter and smartphone apps.”
This useful tool is perfect if you’re planning a cruise to the islands. We asked Dr. Nathan Case how often the aurora graces Scotland with its presence:
“It depends on where in Scotland you are. If you want to see the Northern Lights, the further north you can go, the better. You will also need clear, unobstructed views of the northern horizon with little light pollution. Shetland and the other northern isles stand the best chance of spotting the aurora. Lochs and beaches or hillsides with a clear view north are also great spots to try.
“If you can find the right spot, the aurora is visible quite frequently from Scotland during the winter months (September through to April) with at least some sightings possible a few times a month. Such sightings will often be of a single auroral arc that appears white to the naked eye, or may not be visible at all, but will show up nicely in long-exposure photographs. Particularly strong auroral displays, such as those that can be seen from right across Scotland and even in the middle of Edinburgh, occur less regularly – perhaps half a dozen times or so a year.”
The archipelago of Shetland has more than 100 islands and is located around 100 miles from the nearest point on the Scottish mainland. Its main port, Lerwick, is level with Bergen in Norway, making it a prime spot for aurora hunting. We spoke to David Nicol, head of NB Communications working with Promote Shetland, to find out why Shetland is such a fantastic location for those eager to see the aurora:
“Quite simply, Shetland is the best place in the UK to see the Northern Lights – or mirrie dancers, as they are known locally. Our northern latitude and lack of light pollution combine to provide perfect conditions to experience this awesome natural spectacle. Of course, no-one can guarantee when the mirrie dancers will be out, but that’s just part of the appeal. When you do see them, the sight can take your breath away.”
A land of waterfalls and icy fjords, Iceland has long been praised as an excellent place to see the northern lights. Although Iceland is larger than many countries, including Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark, its population is just approximately 334,000. To put that into perspective, the Netherlands is home to more than 17 million. With so few people around, Iceland’s light pollution is kept to a minimum. The aurora can be spotted even in larger towns such as Akureyri and occasionally from the capital city, Reykjavik.
Iceland Aurora, a group of passionate photographers, takes visitors on photo tours to capture the phenomenon. We spoke to one of the guides, Tony Prower, to find out more about spotting the lights in Iceland:
“Iceland is in a perfect spot for intense aurora activity. The weather we get here can be stormy and even dangerous, but the strong winds clear the air giving fantastic Northern Lights viewing. The incredible landscapes can make your Northern Lights experience very special.
“We are a small team of professional photographers that help visitors to Iceland achieve their dreams. The company was formed in 2010 when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted. Our tours are private Jeep tours, or Ice and Aurora workshops with small groups.”
On some cruises to Iceland, you’ll get to spend two days in Reykjavik. If you’re eager to see the aurora, it may be worth booking an evening tour with Iceland Aurora. The team can collect you from Reykjavik. Although some tours get cancelled due to poor conditions, the ones that the team have run have had 100% success so far.
Due to Alaska’s unique position close to the Arctic Circle, it comes as no surprise that it’s one of the best places to see the northern lights. The state’s diverse landscape ranges from jagged, snow-capped mountains to dense forests. In amongst the wilderness, Alaska’s bustling towns and cities are home to around 746,000 people.
On a cruise to Alaska, you’ll be taken to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to experience the wild, rugged Alaskan landscape in all its glory. Generally your first port of call will be Ketchikan. This picturesque city faces the Inside Passage, the dramatic route your ship will take past towering mountains and glaciers. From here, you’ll visit the quaint community of Sitka, to the breath-taking Icy Strait Point and on to the capital city of Juneau, before reaching Skagway, home of the Gold Rush National Historical Park. By spending a week in this beautifully remote part of the world, you’ll stand a good chance of seeing the aurora. But remember, the lights often appear in the early hours of the morning, so be sure to stay up for a chance to see the sky glowing. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute provides a daily forecast on its website, so you can see how strong the aurora will be during your cruise.
Other places to see the Northern Lights
For the best chance of seeing this remarkable natural phenomenon, take a look at our last minute cruise deals for a Northern Lights adventure. Have you been fortunate enough to witness the aurora on your travels? We’d love to see your photos!
Image credits: Giuseppe Milo, Ronnie Robertson, Bureau of Land Management, Anup Shah