The Northern Lights, a.k.a. the Aurora Borealis, is one of those things that manages to make it onto everybody’s must-see list. It’s for good reason. The Lights live up to all the hype. But you only have so many days off in a year. How can you maximize your chances for catching the Borealis? Where should you go? Which Arctic cruise should you take? What are the Northern Lights and what causes them?
Best time of year to see the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights are, as you would imagine, something that requires a night sky in order for them to be appreciated. Remember, the Arctic receives almost around-the-clock sunlight at the height of its summer months. Therefore, you’re going to want to skip the July cruises.
Another consideration, know that Arctic cruises can only run while the waters are ice-free. Therefore, you’re going to want to book a sailing that lands somewhere between December and March. This is very important. Cruises can only sail when the waters are open and ice-free, allowing ships to pass.
What are the Northern Lights?
When you see the Northern Lights shimmering overhead, you’re actually seeing a kind of force-field at work protecting the surface of the Earth.
The sun has cycles (about 11 years long) where it ups and then descends in the amount of particles in sends out in waves. These waves flare out from the sun in all directions. Some of them naturally cross the path of Earth.
These Coronal Mass Ejections (a.k.a. “solar winds”) are made up of charged particles. These particles meet with our magnetosphere (the magnetic “force field”) that lays in our atmosphere at anywhere from 80 m to 400 km above sea level.
The magnetosphere causes the solar waves to bend and break around the Earth. This mixes them up with oxygen or nitrogen particles in the sky. The different colours of the waves are a result of the different particle interactions and the height they occur at.
The best Northern Lights cruises
For the very peak of Aurora Borealis efficiency, you’re going to want to try to get into the strip of geography known as the Auroral Zone. It is found between 66° and 69° north. The Lights have the possibility of being seen anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. However, this Zone is a much more active Auroral hotspot than other locations.
That being said, here are a couple of spots around the world that not only offer a good chance of seeing the Lights but also have many charms of their own in case the overhead clouds aren’t cooperating.
Spitsbergen & North Norway
Spitsbergen, part of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, offers up some of the Arctic’s beauty in its most natural state. As you sail under the blue and green curtains of light overhead, you’ll also be treated to pristine icebergs and glaciers along with starkly beautiful snow-capped mountains.
Here’s a pro Northern Lights photography tip. When taking a picture of the lights, it helps to have something relatable in the shot to emphasize just how sweeping the Lights truly are. Line up a mountain, your ship, or one of your friends in the picture. This will give the whole frame a sense of scale.
Ittoqqortoormiit, the city found on the east coast of Greenland, is located right next door to the world’s deepest and biggest fjord system, Scoresby Sund. Also, this means you’ll get the added treat of experiencing the planet’s most beautiful landscapes. And if you are in luck, you will be able to capture its whale inhabitants. Whales and the opportunity to zone out on the light show overhead. Does it get any better?
A round-trip Arctic cruise sailing expedition from the top of Iceland to the island of Grimsey and back is another chance to meet up with the gentle giants of the deep (especially Minkes, as well as White-beaked Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises) while sailing completely clear of any sort of man-made light pollution.
Ready to enjoy the vacation of a lifetime. When planning your trip around seeing the Aurora Borealis, be sure to maximize your vacation by going the right season. If you choose a cruise, this is important as well.