What is the best time to see the northern lights? How north do you have to be in order to see the aurora borealis? Does it have to be cold to see the northern lights? There seem to be so many myths around this incredible natural phenomenon. It is such a wonder that to many people seeing the northern lights is a bucket list item. I was eager to get to see them myself before I moved to Sweden. So I did my fair share of research in order to maximize my chances of seeing the green lights in the sky even at the lower latitude where I’m located.
I actually got to see my first aurora just over a month after I came to Sweden, and many more sightings followed. In fact, ever since I moved to Dalarna I realized that seeing the northern lights is actually possible even if you are not in the far north. Sure, you need to be lucky. Solar storms that are strong enough to light up the sky at lower latitudes don’t happen very frequently. But sometimes they do. At the same time, there are people who travel all the way to the best northern lights locations in Scandinavia and don’t get to see them. So luck is a big factor.
I have heard many stories and myths around this mesmerising phenomenon and I decided to collect some tips based on my experience. Here are 5 myths about the northern lights – debunked!
1. You can only see the northern lights in the winter
This is true; but winter is not the only time of the year when you get to see the aurora. Solar storms happen all year round. The reason why the aurora is visible only in the winter is because you need darkness in order to see the northern lights. Winter is the darkest time of the year, and the closer you are to the Arctic circle, the fewer hours of daylight you get in the winter. This means that between December and February is when your chances of seeing the northern lights are highest.
Still, it gets dark enough for the aurora also in the “shoulder season” – as long as it gets properly dark at night. I have been able to see the northern lights as early as late august and as late as mid-April. In my experience, October and March are excellent aurora viewing months. The nights are shorter than during the peak of winter, but chances for clear skies are greater, thus making for some excellent conditions in case of a solar storm.
The reason why you can’t see the northern lights in the summer is because of lack of proper darkness. Over the Arctic Circle they experience the phenomenon of the midnight sun, but even where I am located the night only lasts about 5 hours, and it never gets fully dark. Around the solstice it actually never gets dark enough to see the stars.
2. You can only see the northern lights above the Arctic Circle
Now, the closest you are to the Pole, the greater your chances of seeing the northern lights are. So anywhere above and beyond the Arctic Circle will definitely maximize your chances. But the greater the size of a solar storm, the wider the area that will be affected. Northern lights are measured following a scale that is known as the KP index. This index measures the intensity of a geomagnetic storm and allows to predict how far south the northern lights may extend. You can read more about the KP index here.
I am located in Dalarna, at about 60°N. According to the KP index scale, in order to see the northern lights I need a forecast between KP 4 and 5. With KP 6 you are able to see the northern lights in southern locations such as Stockholm, Estonia and even Scotland. Some extraordinary geomagnetic storms reached KP 7 and sightings have been recorded in northern Poland! Less frequent, but hey, there’s hope!
I heard a story from my dad once. His grandpa had told him that one night in the 1930s people from his village had seen strange lights in the night sky and had taken that as a bad omen. The following year the war broke. My great-grandpa died before he got a chance to learn that what he had actually witnessed was a once-in-a-lifetime aurora display that reached out as far as northern Italy. While it’s sad to think they connected such a spectacular phenomenon to the second world war, I think it’s fascinating that they attributed some magical powers to a natural wonder they could not understand.
3. You will not see the northern lights on a full moon
Lie! I have seen the northern lights with both a full moon and city lights in the way. Why does this matter, then? In order to maximize your chances at seeing the aurora borealis you ideally want to be somewhere dark. As dark as you can get. Get out of the city, find a spot well away from city lights and your eyes will be able to pick up more colour in the northern lights. From the full moon you can’t clearly get away. So the “impediment” that the full moon causes is just that it will make the sky overall “brighter”, and your eye might not get as good at detecting the aurora as if in a condition of total darkness.
The same applies to city lights. Northern lights can be visible in cities like Stockholm, Uppsala, Oslo and Helsinki when a big solar storm occurs and the KP number is high. The reason why it can be challenging to see them anyway lies in the fact that big cities have greater light pollution. Just get out of the city or find a darker area and you’re good. If the sky is clear and the solar storm is happening, you can see the northern lights even with a certain degree of light pollution or a full moon over your head.
4. It needs to be cold to see the northern lights
I never really understood this one. While all the other myths carry some truth, this one just doesn’t make sense. I mean, of course if the northern lights are a winter phenomenon occurring in the polar and subpolar region, it is cold. But it’s not like if the temperature suddenly plummets it is a sign that the aurora will dance in the sky. Actually, there is really no relation. Winter in Dalarna is obviously less rigid than Svalbard in terms of temperature, yet on high KP nights both locations will get the aurora – and there might be a solid 15°C temperature difference.
I think that this myth might have something to do with the weather rather than the actual temperature of the outside air. Clear nights are generally colder. An overcast sky will help maintain a warmer temperature. It is on clear nights that we generally wake up to temperatures in the -20s celsius. So I think that this is what this cold myth means. You need clear skies in order to see the northern lights and that might be the relation.
As I wrote before, you can get to see the northern lights in August as well as in April. Temperatures are usually well over zero those months, yet the aurora can still happen.
5. There will be no more northern lights for the next 11 years
This was the most alarming news I read one day on my first year in Sweden, when I was all hyped up about chasing the northern lights. The solar activity has 11-year cycles and then we were at the peak; it was predicted that the solar activity would decrease dramatically until the next peak in 11 years. Bummer. It turns out this is, again, partly a lie. Sure, the sun does have cycles. But this doesn’t mean that for the next 11 years there will be no geomagnetic activity. What it means is that sightings, especially at lower latitudes, might get less frequent. Or rather, that I was lucky that my first winter in Sweden actually occurred during the peak of solar activity. During the winter of 2014-15 I managed to see the northern lights 7 times! And I’ve never been more north than Dalarna.
Until the next peak in solar activity, if you are located in southern Scandinavia you may not get to see the northern lights very often. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t get to see them at all. You just need to hope that you get a clear sky on the fewer high KP occurrences, and you can be sure that the aurora will dance over your head. Once again, the luck factor is crucial. I’ve had guests visiting me on random dates for short times and they were lucky enough to get to see the aurora. I’ve had guests who came during the best months hoping to be as lucky, and they did not get to see a thing.
Some tips to see the northern lights at lower latitudes
My favourite tip is: keep an eye on the forecast. Aurora Service – Europe is an excellent website to check your chances at aurora sightings. Learn what is the minimum KP number required at your location and keep an eye on the three-day forecast. As every forecast, it is not always reliable. It has occurred that the forecast was predicting KP0 and we had the northern lights at 60°N. Same with the opposite. The forecast analyses the solar activity and predicts the consequences of the solar storms. It’s a prediction, things don’t always go as you’d expect them to.
Once you know that a possible northern light display might be happening in your area, get ready to chase. Try to find a place that has minimum artificial light in the way and face north. Even if it’s going to be a smaller display, it is over the northern horizon where it will happen. I find that being at the southern banks of a lake and looking north across the water is a great vantage point, as you get to see plenty of the sky and if you’re lucky you even see the aurora reflected.
Have your camera, and keep it on a tripod set to long exposure. Even when the naked eye can’t see much, the camera will be able to pick up some more. You might not get the greatest viewing experience, but at least you will have a chance at witnessing this fantastic phenomenon that occurs so rarely yet it never ceases to amaze me. My biggest wish is to get to see the northern lights from a plane. I haven’t been lucky to witness that yet, but seeing the aurora from the sky must be fantastic. Looking forward to this surprise one day on a night flight in the future.
I hope my experience will encourage you, who live in or visit the “south of the north” as I like to call this area that is not the great north yet, but it’s also not quite the south, to get to see the northern lights. As Ialways like to tell my guests who hapen to see it, it might not be as dramatic than up in the north, but it’s still something you don’t get to see every day.