Experience the marvel: the northern lights

Watch nature's own theatre unfold above you as the most spectacular light show takes centre stage: The northern lights with you in the front row.

Experience the marvel: the northern lights
Terje Rakke/Nordic Life

When to see the northern lights

Seeing the northern lights, or the aurora borealis, as they are also known, is a jaw-dropping and mystical moment.

The lights are at their most frequent in late autumn and winter/early spring. Between the autumn equinox and spring equinox (21 September – 21 March), it is dark between 6 pm and 1 am, and you have maximum chances of spotting the lights. However, the weather is also of importance, and September, October and November tend to be wet and snowless in the north.
From December the weather dries up, and there is normally plenty of snow. If you come in December or January, you experience the polar nights with atmospheric evenings and very short days.
In February and March the days are longer and you see more of the snow-clad landscapes during daytime, and the evenings still offer maximum chances to spot the northern lights.
No guarantee can be given, though. Some weeks, you are treated to fantastic displays, repeated several times during the evening. Other times, the snow falls densely, or the northern lights simply stay away. Naturally, the longer you stay and the more time you set aside, the better the odds.
Where to see the northern lights
Theoretically, you can see the northern lights all over Norway. However, the best places are above the Arctic Circle in Northern Norway.
The northern lights belt hits Northern Norway in the Lofoten Islands, and follows the coast all the way up to the North Cape. This means that no other place on earth offers better chances of spotting the lights, and one location in this area might be as good as another. In fact, one often observes the same northern lights in the Lofoten as in Tromsø, just from a different angle. The driest weather, giving clear skies, is found inland, statistically providing the best chances, but with strong eastern winds, the coast can be clearer than inland areas.
In order to get full value from the show you should avoid the full moon and places with a lot of light as they make the experience considerably paler. Also remember to wrap up warmly.
Activities under the northern lights
Aurora is an unpredictable lady, and you never know when she will decide to turn up. This diva keeps you waiting, so whenever you go hunting for the northern lights above the Arctic Circle, make sure you set aside the whole evening. Northern lights worshippers do everything from cross-country skiing to building snowmen in order to keep warm and entertained while outside.
However, organised tours are a good alternative.
Experience the aurora at sea
Witness the northern lights as they fill the inky night sky from the comfort of one of Hurtigruten's ships.
Snowmobile safaris
Driving your own snowmobile is a feeling of freedom in itself, and when you do it under the northern lights, you will definitely have an experience to talk about. Several operators offer such tours in Northern Norway. One recommended alternative is a guided snowmobile tour from Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel. There is a similar option in Kirkenes.
Northern lights lectures and experiences with accommodation
Polarlightcenter in Laukvik on Austvågøya in the Lofoten Islands offers presentations, information, courses and exhibitions. The centre is run by enthusiastic northern lights researchers Rob and Therese, who will give you informational and magic experiences.
Dog sledding
In Finnmark you can book dog sledding under the northern lights in the Pasvik Valley, on the Russian border and the Northern light tour in Karasjok, the sami capital.
More northern lights experiences
You will find a wide selection of northern lights experiences in the listings below this article.
Be patient
When dreaming about seeing the northern lights, you must remember thatyou are at the complete mercy of nature. The northern lights love to play hide and seek. Observing the aurora borealis is often a tug of war between your patience and the aurora itself. Stay in the northern lights area at least a week, preferably two, and you will be rewarded – unless local weather suddenly decides to obstruct your view with clouds.
A rainbow at night
Each appearance of the northern lights is unique. Often you see three green bands across the night sky. Or the lights come as flickering curtains orrolling smoke. The colour is a luminous green, often with a hint of pink along the edge, and occasionally with a deep violet centre. The colour palette seems to come from the 1980s.
If there is a lot of activity up there, the northern lights explode for a minute or two in a corona. The next minute it is all over, and you ask yourself whether this was real or just an Arctic fata morgana.
Living legend
Perhaps not so surprisingly, the northern lights' spectacle has given rise to as many legends as there have been people watching. Symbols linked to the northern lights are found on the Sami shamanistic drum. The phenomenon has several different names in Sami. It is, for instance, known as Guovssahas, which means "the light which can be heard". The northern lights were traditionally associated with sound by the Sami, the indigenous people of Norway. And during the Viking Age, the northern lights were said to be the armour of the Valkyrie warrior virgins, shedding a strange flickering light.
Solar explosions
Reality, if not as poetic, is equally impressive. It is the sun that lies behind the formation of the auroras. During large solar explosions and flares, huge quantities of particles are thrown out of the sun and into deep space.
When the particles meet the Earth's magnetic shield, they are led towards a circle around the magnetic North Pole, where they interact with the upper layers of the atmosphere. The energy which is then released is the northern lights. All this happens approximatelty 100 kilometres above our heads.
An absolutely fabulous trip to see the northern lights
Joanna Lumley, the actress from the BBC series Absolutely Fabulous, had dreamt of seeing the northern lights since she was a child. And finally she got to live out her dream. In a splendid BBC film, she travels across Norway in search of the aurora borealis. For Joanna, as for many others who get to experience the elusive lights, it was an altogether emotional experience.See a clip from the film here.
Chasing the northern lights
If the northern lights do not come to you, you can go to the northern lights. Set off by car into the polar night on the lookout for clear skies.
Joanna Lumley's northern lights guide, Kjetil Skogli, offers rides from Tromsø. You can also go in search of the mystical lights starting from Alta with the company GLØD
If you want to learn how to catch the northern lights on your camera, join an organised outing with Creative Vacations. There is also the Northern Lights Bus in Tromsø.
Article sponsored by Visit Norway