mahabis travel // seeking out the northern lights
One of our favourite destinations for travel this year is Iceland. From slow road trips around the ring road to street art in Reykjavik, the famous land of fire and ice has become a must-visit on our list.
But one of the most spectacular sights it offers is the aurora borealis. We take a look at where and when you can seek them out, and how to experience them at their best...
photo: marcelo quinlan
Watching the otherworldly green light unfold in the skies above is something no-one can prepare you for. Whilst the lights can occasionally reach as far South as the North of England, if you want to have the very best chance of seeing them in all their glory, you need to head north.
It is near impossible to spot them from April to August, as the skies in the far north do not get dark enough. The optimum time for viewing the lights is between January and March, when the nights are long and dark and the majority of the snow has already fallen, leaving the skies clear. Alternatively, if you don’t want to brave the extreme cold, visit in September or October to see the lights reflecting spectacularly in rivers and lakes before the frost sets in.
We’re currently reaching the end of a solar maximum, which means that the lights are particularly prominent at the moment. The aurora occurs when charged particles with the sun react with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, and there is currently a peak of charged particles hurtling towards the North Pole. Whereas in years gone by, the indigenous tribes of the World’s most northern regions invented their own explanations for the green glow in the sky, we now know what causes the lights, and can predict the peaks in their activity.
But where to go to experience the lights at their very best?
You can never guarantee that you will spot the northern lights during your trip, so it’s best to plan to be out in secluded areas for at least a couple of nights to maximise your chances. You will very rarely be able to spot the aurora from a brightly lit town. Most hotels and guest houses in regions visited for aurora viewing offer wake-up calls to your room if the lights are spotted during the night, and it’s usually possible to take northern lights tours that will drive you out into the wilderness to attempt to hunt them down.
Several secluded spots in the far north of the Nordic countries offer unusual beds for the night that help to maximise the potential for spotting the lights. Hotel Kakslauttanen offers glass igloos where guests can observe the night sky and have the best chance of glimpsing the northern lights from the comfort of their own beds. Looking out over Lake Thingvallavatn, the Northern Lights bar at Iceland’s Ion Hotel is the perfect destination for catching the aurora reflected upon the water. And the Hotel Arctic in Greenland is located on the edge of a glacial lagoon, offering the potential for light shows dancing above the frozen sea.
You don’t have to book in at a specific hotel to maximise your chances of witnessing the lights, however. There are several regions of the north where the skies are dark enough to provide the perfect canvas for the aurora to dance upon.
Abisko National Park in Swedish Lapland is one of the very best places in the world to watch the Northern Lights, due to its unusual microclimate. The infamous ‘blue hole of Abisko’ is an area of the night sky that almost always stays completely clear, due to its unique position surrounded by lakes and mountains, providing the perfect space amongst the clouds for the lights to shine through.
The further north you go, the better your chances are of spotting the Northern Lights. Svalbard, in the far north of Norway sits within the Arctic Circle and offers some of the best chances to witness the aurora during the Polar Night. From mid-November until the end of January, the sun doesn’t reach above the horizon, resulting in perpetual nights that fade into an eerie twilight. The continuous darkness during this period offers more chances to catch the Northern Lights in action.
The aurora can be spotted all across Iceland, and the abundance of natural volcanic hot springs makes the waiting game a whole lot warmer. Choose to visit the popular Blue Lagoon or seek out a more secluded spot (such as the Secret Lagoon), and warm yourself up against the harsh winter temperatures whilst keeping your eyes on the sky. Float in bath-temperature waters outdoors amidst the snow, sip a glass of champagne, and watch the Northern Lights unfold.
Book your trip, be patient, seek out the darkness, and cross your fingers. If you don't get the chance to visit, have a flick through Tiina Törmänen's amazing self-portraits amongst the lights.
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