Will I see the northern lights?

Everyone wants to know, even if they don’t ask. We of course hope that people who come here will see them, but we know that a high proportion of them won’t. The odds against are high.

First, the bad news

Many people arrive here excited by images of spectacular pink and green swirls over the skies of northern Sweden. If we have to disappoint them and tell them that recently no lights have been visible in the area – because there has been no solar or geomagnetic activity – they are insistent there must have been – they’ve seen them. At least on the web. But the date of the photo on the web is often the ‘photo upload’ date, not the date the lights were seen.

There’s no getting away from the fact that in a world where there seem to be so many tools at hand to control things around us, the northern lights are still unpredictable and elusive. Space weather forecasts will tell you about sun or geomagnetic activity, so you can sometimes get a rough idea of a period of a day or two when there is a higher chance. But, then, that ‘day or two’ can shift by a day, and – damn! – you’ve already caught the flight home.

But supposing the forecast holds, and there’s a high chance of activity on the day you are here?… Good, you’ve got through the first hurdle. The next hurdle, however, is when exactly in the 24 hours the activity is going to happen. You’re here, you’re on the look-out, but the lights may come and go very quickly so if you aren’t looking up at the sky at the right time when they appear you might be having a shower, eating your meal, picking your nose and reading old magazines.

But you’re determined – you will be outside, concentrating, focussed. But there’s another hurdle; it’s minus 18 degrees and after a while determination isn’t enough. If you’re in town, where you can come indoors to warm up in between watching sessions, then the lights will also be harder to see when they first appear. If you’re out of town and more in the dark, then the length of time you can watch and wait is shorter. A car helps, but the headlights of Swedish cars come on automatically with the engine, so you will have to sit in the car waiting with the heating off. Good luck.

But suppose you are in luck – you are in the right place, at the right time, with the right clothes on, and the lights appear! Hurrah! But unfortunately you can’t see them because the sky – clear for the last four hours – has now clouded over and remains that way for the rest of the night, or at least until 4am, by which time you have long since succumbed to sleep.

There has to be a way around this, you reason. There must be people who can help. And there are plenty of people out there really keen to help you. But has there ever been such a clear tourist anachronism as a ‘Northern Lights Tour’? Unless they’re a mixture of Santa/Richard Branson (can take you above any clouds) and God (know exactly when the lights will appear) this kind of tour is like offering ‘A Sunny Day in Bournemouth’, only much much less likely.

These tours are based on two false ideas: that the lights can be predicted to be seen at certain times, and that the lights can be seen in certain places and not others. I think we’ve covered the first one. The second one is trickier. The only part of that one that is true is that it is easier to see them if it is darker. So no question, if they happen to appear when you are out on your dog-sled tour on a frozen lake with no artificial light, bingo! But what’s the chance of that? We’ve had people stay with us who have walked back to a particular spot in Kiruna, because someone else saw the lights there. It doesn’t work like that. In fact the whole of the north of the globe gets them, or not, with a variation only on which side of the globe you are, and whether it is dark there or not.

There’s an idea that one can chase the northern lights. Again, this is only partly true. The lights appear in the sky that night, at a certain latitude, or not – it won’t matter if you are in Tromsö or Kiruna. But what will matter is if it is cloudy – then you can ‘chase’ the clearer weather, and so see the lights. Sometimes the lights appear only in one direction, so you might have a better chance of seeing them if there isn’t a mountain or town in the way of your view. But that direction is usually north, so chasing isn’t usually necessary – you should just begin in the right place. And being higher up doesn’t help either..

So what’s the good news?

The good news is that although a lot of people who come here don’t see the northern lights, most of them nonetheless go home feeling ok about this. Surprised? So were they.

For all this talk about northern lights – and they are wonderful when they appear – there are other kinds of lights up here that we think are rather overlooked. Twilight is beautiful – the flat top of the earth means that dusk and dawn are long. Then there are all the other effects in the sky caused by ice crystals, the angle of the sun shining upwards, the effect of the nearby mountains on the clouds – it can be magical, even without the northern lights. (Read the entry – ‘Twilight and other magic light’).