Aurora Borealis Viewing Guide


The Aurora Borealis dances high in the night sky. Photographed by Chase Dekker.

For over 7 months of the year, the skies are dark enough to witness one of earth’s greatest natural phenomenons, the Northern Lights (a.k.a. Aurora Borealis). Even though the Northern Lights can be seen during any dark and clear night in the North, there are some things you should understand when planning to view them. Below we will go through some tips and tricks to becoming a true aurora chaser.

When to See the Lights:

As you might have guessed, the best time to see the Northern Lights come when the nights are long and dark around the winter months. Generally speaking, the Northern Lights season runs from early September-early April. During this period, the very best time to see the aurora falls around each solstice (fall and spring) when solar activity is at its peak.

Where to See the Lights:


The first and most crucial piece to planning your Northern Lights excursion is heading to the right spot. No matter where you pick, I recommend staying at least 4 nights in an auroral zone to give yourself a good chance to see the show. The longer you stay, the more you are going to see! Here are some of the best locations for viewing the lights:

Fairbanks, Alaska

Why: Fairbanks has long been considered the Northern Lights viewing capital of the United States and could easily take that claim regarding the entire world. Sitting within Alaska’s interior, Fairbanks is far enough from any ocean, meaning you get more of a continental climate, which will help keep the clouds away and will leave you with plenty of clear nights. Fairbanks also has a lot of other activities ranging from dog sledding, the World Ice Sculpture Championships, wildlife viewing, and more. If visiting Fairbanks, considering staying somewhere just outside the city (near the UAF campus is good) as then you can enjoy all the amenities the city has to offer and then escape to nearby lookouts at night.

When: You can view the Northern Lights above Fairbanks starting around the last few days of August through the first half of April. The best month is March as it is the driest month, a lot of daytime activities, warmer temperatures than the cold winter months, and the solstice usually has more auroral activity.

Good Alternatives in the region: Denali National Park & Preserve, Barrow, Bettles

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

Why: Yellowknife is Canada’s version of Fairbanks. Situated within the heart of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife lies under the auroral band and experiences a continental climate due to the fact that it is far from any ocean. Yellowknife offers a fair range of activities from dog sledding, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and more during the day and the city has a decent range of restaurants, especially when you consider its isolated location. The only downside to Yellowknife is that it can be a bit harder and more expensive to get to than other locations on this list. The only major cities that have flights to Yellowknife are Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa with seasonal flights out of Vancouver.

When: As with Fairbanks, March and early April are the optimal months to visit Yellowknife as it is the driest month and tends to have the most auroral activity. September is a decent alternative as the fall colors should be in full swing, but there can be a fair amount of rain during the fall months.

Good Alternatives in the region: Fort McMurray, Churchill, Whitehorse/Dawson City

Iceland

Why: This small viking island nation lies directly under the auroral band, which means on a low auroral activity night, the lights should still be visible above. On top of that, Iceland offers many other sights from Reykjavik, hot springs, waterfalls, great landscapes, and more. The biggest downside with Iceland is that it is completely surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, which means cloudless nights can be extremely hard to come by. Iceland has become a much easier country to get to as you can now fly to Reykjavik very cheaply from many North American and European cities.

When: If viewing the Northern Lights is your priority, then you should consider one of the top two locations or their alternatives, which will raise your odds greatly. Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland should be considered a great bonus to your visit. Because of this, visiting Iceland during September and October is recommended where you will get around 12 hours of daylight and the landscape will look wonderful.

Good Alternatives in the region: Greenland (it is pretty much the only place that is close enough to consider!)

Tromso, Norway

Why: Placed within the far north of Norway’s endless fjord country, Tromso is a good sized city that takes the cake when it comes to watching the Northern Lights over spectacular landscapes. The city is relatively easy to get to with daily flights from Oslo and a few other European cities. As with Iceland, the biggest downside is due to Tromso’s location near the water, which means clear nights can be hard to come by. If you are already in Europe or looking to explore more of Norway, then this can be a great choice.

When: The driest month to see the Northern Lights in Tromso is March. Since Tromso is so far north, the months of December and January see very little light, so there is not much to do unless you are only aurora hunting. Fall can be a good time with the fjords showing off their peak autumn foliage.

Good Alternatives: Lapland in northern Sweden, northern Finland, Lofoten Islands

Understanding the Aurora:

To maximize your chances of seeing the aurora, you first have to understand how it works. In short, the northern lights occur when charged particles emitted from the sun during a solar flare penetrate the earth's magnetic shield and collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere. These collisions result in countless little bursts of light, called photons, which make up the aurora. These particles are penetrating our surface 24/7, even during summer when the aurora is invisible due to the lack of any dark skies. However, you need a moderate to large enough solar storm to see an impressive auroral show. If very few particles get hurled towards earth, then either the aurora will not appear, or it will be weak and minimal.