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 orrollingsmoke. 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.
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 or the Svalbard Islands.
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 science behind the northern lights
But what exactly are the northern lights? 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.
When dreaming about seeing the northern lights, you must remember that you 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.