The same extreme reaches of northern Europe and Canada that provide endless days of sunshine in the summer deliver something just as remarkable during the winter months, as the Aurora Borealis (‘dawning of the north’) or Northern Lights cast their arcs of dancing light across the dark night skies. What's more, the displays are set to be some of the best this winter.
What causes the Northern Lights?
The displays themselves are caused by solar winds (streams of particles charged by the sun) colliding with different gasses in the earth’s atmosphere, and it’s the nature of the gas that determines the colours produced by the collision. Particles generally hit at around 100km, where the predominant gas is oxygen, and it’s this that produces the displays of vivid green light most commonly associated with the Northern Lights. Reds, purples, pinks and blues – caused by collisions with lower-lying nitrogen – are also seen but far less common, while the most spectacular but rarest displays of vivid blues and reds are the result of violent collisions with high-altitude oxygen. As for the dances that these lights perform – swirls, flickers, billowing arcs and waves like lines of falling dominoes – these are the result of particles being pulled in all directions by the earth’s magnetic field.
The Lights are at their best in the aurora zone, between 60º and 70º north, a curve that extends across northern Scandinavia, Iceland, southern Greenland and northern parts of Canada, and it’s these destinations that make up our top five places on earth to see the Northern Lights.
From the Arctic capital Tromso and the northern town of Kirkenes to the spectacular Lofoten Islands and vast snow-clad wilderness of the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway boasts some magnificent locations for viewing the Northern Lights. Combine your Norwegian Northern Lights experience with an incredibly diverse and exciting range of winter activities, including snowmobiling, dogsledding, king crab fishing, snowshoeing, cross country skiing and more, while staying in some truly spectacular winter accommodation, including the Kirkenes Snow Hotel, the wonderful Engholm Husky Lodge or the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel. A Northern Lights cruise with renowned cruise line Hurtigruten, allows you to take in vast swathes of Arctic Norway, while increasing your chances of seeing the Northern Lights along the way.
In terms of specialist Northern Lights tours, activities and indeed accommodation, Sweden certainly leads the way. Learn how to build a fire before relaxing on reindeer skins in the heart of Swedish Lapland on a guided Northern Lights snowshoe tour near the town of Lulea, spend a night at the Aurora Safari Camp in the company of acclaimed Northern Lights photographer Fredrick Broman, search for the lights on a snowmobile safari to a remote wilderness camp during a stay at Sweden’s iconic ICEHOTEL, or decamp to the Aurora Sky Station near the town of Bjorkliden, some 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in the stunning Abisko National Park.
Iceland in the winter is a spectacular place, a country of ever-changing volcanic landscapes, powerful waterfalls, black lava beaches and iceberg filled lagoon, all of which create the perfect setting in which to view the ethereal splendour of the Northern Lights. Although Iceland is perfectly set up for independent, tailor-made touring, there are a number of superb specialist escorted tours that give visitors the very best chance of seeing and photographing the aurora. These combine the best of Iceland’s winter activities, ranging from guided glacier walks to days spent relaxing in some of the country’s renowned geothermal spas, with Northern Lights lectures and guided hunts, while many of the countryside hotels have their own private outdoor hot tubs, the perfect place to lay back and watch the lights above.
Greenland is unquestionably one of the best places on earth for seeing the Northern Lights and offers a better chance in percentage terms of seeing an aurora display than almost anywhere else. But there’s far more to a winter holiday in Greenland than just the Northern Lights. Head to the town of Ilulissat on the shores of Disko Bay, where you can try your hand at dogsledding, learn about the history of the region’s Inuit hunters, and sail among the 20 billion tons of icebergs that are deposited into the bay each year by the Northern Hemisphere’s most productive glacier, the Ilulissat Ice Fjord.
While Canada has much in common with its north European counterparts across the Atlantic, culturally, a trip to the world's second largest country offers an entirely different experience to those destinations closer to home. Head to the wilds of the Yukon where a weeklong Northern Lights tour combines dogsledding, snowmobiling and aurora hunts with a fascinating look back at the Klondike Gold Rush era. A trip to Yellowknife in the north of Alberta rewards visitors with near perfect Northern Lights-viewing conditions coupled with magnificent wilderness scenery on the shores of Great Slave Lake and the chance to spend a few days exploring the spectacular Rocky Mountains from Calgary, just an hour and a half flight to the south. And for wildlife enthusiasts, a holiday to the remote outpost of Churchill in Manitoba combines Northern Lights excursions with polar bear viewing in specially built Tundra Buggies.