Aurors are literally some of the most electrifying performances in nature. The radiant eddies of green, blue, and (sometimes) pink occur when charged particles from the sun crash into our magnetosphere. It is a phenomenon that is often observed in narrow bands around the poles – aurora borealis in the north and aurora australis in the south. Because these regions are remote and the associated weather patterns are erratic, chasing the lights can be a challenge.
If catching is on your bucket list, careful planning will increase your chances.
Here’s what you need to know.
For American travelers, Alaska remains the safest choice for Auror viewing. In fact, the small town of Fairbanks in the center of the state calls itself the “Aurora Capital of the World”. Spend three nights here in the dead of winter and your chances of spying on the nocturnal wonder increase to 90%.
But you don’t have to brave the bone-chilling cold to fix your gaze.
“In the more remote parts of the state, the aurora is most active during the fall and spring equinoxes,” notes Ylli Ferati of Alaska. “Then I enjoy my best sightseeing. In addition, the weather is nicer. “
The so-called shoulder season also offers plenty of sun for sightseeing. When you book a trip on a cruise outside the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada, you will sail 17 days from the Canadian area of Nunavut to Greenland in September. Spot polar bears and icebergs during the day and marvel at the lights at night.
“There’s a common misconception that you can only see the Aurors in the deepest part of winter – that’s just not the case,” confirms Chad Blakley, who runs Lights Over Lapland, a photo adventure outfitter in northern Sweden. “All you need is a clear, dark sky and you are ready to see.” Blakley’s clients have had great success in Abisko National Park, where a dry microclimate inhibits cloud formation, resulting in clearer skies than most other locations in the auroral zone.
Similar conditions exist in Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean more than 500 miles north of mainland Norway. The town of Longyearbyen is one of the main destinations for aurora hunters, especially during the long polar night when the sun drops below the horizon from late October to mid-February. The lights can be seen here at noon.
However, when the days get longer, the extreme north swaps for the midnight sun when it gets darker for longer. This of course virtually erases the northern lights viewing.
But the summer of one region is the winter of another. In the southern hemisphere, the Aurora australis is being lit. If you travel to New Zealand’s South Island between March and September, you will be treated to a special show that few travelers can see.
Less common than their northern counterparts, the southern lights are perhaps more dazzling. They offer a range of orange, pink, and purple hues that usually appear close to the horizon line and allow for some otherworldly Instagram photos. Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park is home to the world’s largest Dark Sky Reserve, which means you have unhindered access to the pitch black night. However, the weather in this remote mountainous region can be unpredictable.
For consistency, take a one-hour ferry to Stewart Island. Outside Oban, a clear winter sky awaits you in Rakiura National Park.
If you prefer Australia, try your luck with Tasmania. The South Arm Peninsula, 40 km southeast of the island’s capital Hobart, is a reliable destination for budding astronomers. It may seem like the end of the world, but the always elusive aurora is known to reward the adventurous.