Last Chance to See the Northern Lights Before They Dim for a Decade
Anne Chalfant—Gazing up at the northern lights often appears on travelers’ bucket lists, but after next year, they’re going to be much more difficult to see.
No, the aurora borealis isn’t disappearing, but it is expected to appear less frequently over the next decade.
The northern lights take place on an 11-year solar cycle. Solar activity, including massive solar eruptions, can occur anytime and produce intense aurora, but those eruptions occur erratically and unpredictably. The 11-year cycle creates a period of frequency, but according to Peter Delamere, associate professor of space physics at the Geophysical Institute, we are at the beginning a downward leg of the cycle.
This means less frequent northern lights, an effect that will likely last until 2024 or even 2026. But lucky for you, 2015 and 2016 will still provide ample sky shows and there’s still time to see the aurora borealis in all its glory.
Here are some prime viewing spots around the world.
The aurora borealis over Tromsø. (Photo: iStock)
To strengthen your chances of seeing the aurora borealis, head north to aurora hot spots, aka places that see northern lights more than 250 nights a year — like Tromsø, Norway.
Tromsø is a charming city with good restaurants and lots of Airbnb rentals. Watch the light show from your window, or take one of the adventurous aurora-chasing snowmobile or bus tours.
In February 2015, I was lucky enough to see the spectacular light show from Snowhotelin Kirkenes, Norway. Frankly, facing Arctic winds while popping in and out of the standard-construction restaurant/lounge had greater appeal than my frozen bed. Payoff came when I got to see the northern lights ebbing and flowing throughout the night.
The northern lights over the Taste of Alaska Lodge in Fairbanks. (Photo: iStock)
In North America, make your way up to Fairbanks, Alaska, which also has the distinction of 250-night-a-year aurora sightings.
If you’re not an night owl, many motels in Fairbanks offer wake-up calls if aurora borealis is spotted. Still, getting out into the darkness is your best chance to see the lights.
The best viewing is miles from city light pollution with a 360-degree view. Fairbanks locals point the way to top spots — such as ski hill parking lot, where you can park and periodically run the car heater.
If you want some guidance, consider an aurora chasing tour beyond the Arctic Circle with Northern Alaska Tour Co. It offers three- and four-day tours complete with guides, tour vehicles, and even dog sledding excursions. Go Alaska Toursalso has a five-day package worth exploring.
And finally, the international aurora-obsessed set can head to Chena Hot Springs Resort, located about 60 miles from downtown Fairbanks. For $239 a night, they transport people to large yurts atop a hill where you can hang out in a heated traditional Mongolian yurt, sip a warm drink, and wait for the sky to explode with color.
Watch the northern lights from the warmth of an Aurora Pod. (Photo: Natural Habitat Adventures)
Frigid temperatures are the greatest challenge facing aurora chasers. In most instances, the peak time to catch the lights is between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., which quickly puts watchers through a wicked endurance test in subzero temperatures.
But never fear, aurora tourism has come up with several inventive ways to battle the cold.
If ultimate comfort is your goal, an Aurora Pod is the luxe solution. This cushy lounge setting has a glass roof that provides 360-degree views of Churchill, Manitoba, in Canada. Natural Habitat Adventures flies guests up to Churchill (there are no roads), and takes them far away from residual light — providing the perfect environment to see the show in the night sky. Added bonus: Tours sometimes provide up-close polar bear sightings.
A heated teepee is the perfect way to watch the northern lights. (Photo: Aurora Village)
There is something undeniably cool about tepees, and Aurora Village offers a unique and rustic experience for viewing the northern lights. Located in Yellowknife, Canada, the village is comprised of authentic-looking heated teepees — keyword: heated. There’s even a lodge with warm seating. Packages start at $533 a person, but it will be worth it when you’re sleeping under the stars.
Real adventure seekers might consider a visit to Sweden’s Björkliden and Abisko region. Here, sky-gazers can travel by snowshoe to a small hut (called a lavvu), located about a mile from the area hotel. With zero light pollution, this small shelter provides the perfect chance to catch the biggest and brightest light show.
Off the Map Travel is a U.K.-based company that keeps light chasers warm with a variety of light chasing tours. Shield yourself from the freezing temps in an ice hotel during a guided tour through Sweden. The group also provides tours through Finland, Iceland, and Canada’s Yukon.
There’s nothing quite like seeing aurora borealis reflecting off of the water. (Photo: Carina Hansen/Hurtigruten/Facebook)
Cruises can take you to prime viewing spots, plus deliver warmth and a 360-degree view … what more could you ask for?
Norway’s Hurtigruten cruises has daily departures, and guarantees that you’ll see the northern lights on its 12-day Bergen-to-Kirkenes coastal Norway sail. If you don’t, your second cruise is free!
Keeping watch is a shared burden, so even while you sleep, the crew’s eyes are on the sky. If they find a show, the PA system alerts sleeping passengers, so you can get up and check it out. A one-way trip from Bergen to Tromsø starts at $899 per person.
Northern lights are only visible during darkest months — September through March. Spring and summer night skies are often too bright in far northern latitudes.
Still, the aurora is elusive. Even during active periods, you won’t see it when there is cloud cover because the light display occurs above the clouds in the ionosphere.
And honestly, the aurora is a diva — really only appearing when it wants to.
You can figure out whether your chances of seeing aurora are zilch or stellar by using this three-day forecast tool. The Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks produces the forecast, and it can be adjusted to any prime viewing region. When chances don’t look good, grab some shuteye. When the scale shows five or greater, start downing the coffee and head into the night.