It is freezing cold, the clock is ticking towards midnight, and we are standing on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere in a remote valley outside of Tromso city in Northern Norway. It is so cold that the snow squeaks under our feet as we walk, and when we breathe out it looks as if we are smoking – the temperature has just dropped to a rather chilly minus seventeen degrees celsius (thats about 1 degree Fahrenheit for you americans).

We are far away from the city with its lights and houses, surrounded by complete darkness. No lights except the faint glow from the camera screen. I have seldom felt this close to nature before, excited and hopeful…..will the Northern Lights show up this evening?!

And yes, it does to its fullest! We are lucky this evening and get to witness nature’s amazing fireworks – the magical Northern Lights in all its colors.

Espen enjoying the Northern Lights

Espen enjoying the Northern Lights

Northern Lights at Kattfjordeidet, Tromso

What Is The Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights, also called Aurora Borealis, can only be seen in the northern hemisphere and is strongest above the Arctic Circle (60-degree latitude) like in Northern Norway and Tromso where we live.

Is it a dancing man?

Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky

It was named Aurora Borealis by Galileo as far back as 1619 after Aurora – the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas – the Greek name for the north wind. 

Northern Lights at Kattfjordeidet, Tromso

Picture from Nasa

From space the Northern Lights looks like colored bands around both poles (picture from Nasa).

The Northern Lights are created when solar wind packed with charged particles come into Earths magnetosphere.

The charged particles, mainly electrons and protons, get precipitated into the upper atmosphere where their energy is lost causing emitting of colored lights. This emitted light is what we see here down at Earth as Northern Lights.

Here is a great film explaining the Northern Lights:

What Does The Northern Lights look like?

The Northern Lights often appears as a diffuse glow on the sky or as “curtains” in the east-west direction, being shaped by Earth’s magnetic field.

Northern Lights can look similar to curtains

Northern Lights sometimes look like curtains

Northern Lights in Kvaenangen at our cabin in the mountains

It can move incredibly fast, almost like it`s dancing! Pretty awesome!

Northern Lights in KvaenangenMost of the Northern Lights is produced between 90 and 150 km above the ground, and reach out to more than 1000 km.

Northern Lights come in many different colors:

  • Red – The red color of the Northern Lights comes from atomic oxygen that emits at 630 nanometers (red) at the highest altitudes. Red is not so common as green, as our eyes can`t see red very well unless there is intense solar activity.
  • Green – Green is the most common color of the Northern Light. When molecular nitrogen collides with an oxygen atom, energy is transferred, which radiates it away at the green wavelength (557,7 nm).
  • Blue – At even lower altitudes molecular nitrogen and ionized molecular nitrogen creates visible light emission in the form of red and blue (428 nanometers). Blue and purple only shows up at the highest levels of solar activity and is not as common as green.
  • Ultraviolet and infrared – Ultraviolet and infrared lights are also part of many Northern Lights. Ultraviolet auroras have also been seen on Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
  • Yellow and pink – Shades of yellow and pink are can also appear in the Northern Lights. These are a mix of red and green or blue. Other shades of red, as well as orange, may be seen on rare occasions. Yellow/ greenish is most common.

How To Predict The Northern Lights?

Since the Northern Lights occur when solar wind hits the Earth`s atmosphere, there are periods and years when the Northern Lights are more likely to appear. Large geomagnetic storms are most common during the peak of the eleven-year sunspot cycle or during the three years after the peak.

Our siberian husky dog Varga under the Northern Lights in Kvaenangen

Northern Lights at Kvaenangen

There are several space weather services out there, which forecast the Northern Lights:

There are also several great apps that you can use to predict the Northern Lights.

 

Northern Lights at Kattfjordeidet, outside of Tromso

Where Is The Best Place To See Northern Lights?

In order to see the Northern Lights, you have to head up north above the Arctic Circle and 60 degrees at least. Tromso in Northern Norway is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, located at latitude 60 degrees north.

Northern Lights in Tromso city

Northern Lights oval

Northern Lights oval

Tromso is located in the middle of the Northern Lights Oval – the area with the highest probability of seeing the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights Oval is centered around 65 degrees North, and it`s width is about 10 degrees but expands when the solar activity is strongest.

This makes northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, Siberia, Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and Iceland the places in the world to see Northern Lights. Many of these places are however too remote and uninhabited, and impossible or very difficult to visit. 

In Tromso you can see Northern Lights from late September till April. The best time to witness the Northern Lights is during the middle of winter, from mid-November to mid-January as during these months the sun does not rise above the horizon at all and it is completely dark. This is called the Polar Night and is the perfect period to watch the Northern Lights. 

Colourful Northern Lights

In order to see the Northern Lights in its full glory and at is strongest, you have to head out of town to more remote areas with as little artificial lighting as possible. Darkness is your friend when it comes to admiring the Northern Lights. The sky has to be clear and not over-clouded. The darker it is the better, so full moon is not usually the best.

Check out the weather forecast in Tromso before booking your flight tickets.

Northern Lights in Kvaenangen, NorwayNorthern Lights appear on in the evenings, often between 20 and 2 o`clock at night (8 pm and 2 am). But you never know for sure when or where it will show up, which makes the Northern Light hunting even more exciting. When you finally see it, you feel really blessed and privileged and treasure it even more.

Since the Northern Lights are strongest when an active area on the sun faces the Earth, and the sun rotates every 27 days, around every 27 days the Northern Lights activity is, in general, strongest.

Tromso is perfect for Northern Lights watching, as it is a big city (biggest in Northern Norway at least…), with a lot going on besides hunting for Northern Lights, like for instance dog sledding, kayaking, museums, mountain hikes, skiing, reindeer sledding, fishing, sailing, and whale safari.

The city has plenty of hotels and other accommodations options like Airbnb apartments and rooms. Check out Visit Tromso for tips on what to do and see in Tromso.

Tromso has become very popular among Norther Lights hunters over the past few years, and it was the famous British actress Joanna Lumley who kicked it off when she visited Tromso in 2008. Her chase of the Northern Lights was filmed by the BBC and has been watched by millions:

Tromso is easy to get to with excellent flight connections to Oslo (15 daily departures) and is quite mild when it comes to temperature due to the Gulf Stream. Tromso Airport is only ten minutes from the city center by car.

DIY Northern Lights Tour in Tromso

  1. Rent a car
  2. Head out of town to a remote area and sit and wait, like for instance these places:

Kattfjordvannet (30 minutes outside of Tromso center)

Ersfjord (30 minutes outside of Tromso center)

Finnvikdalen (20 minutes outside of Tromso center)

Snarbyeidet (50 minutes outside of Tromso center)

Bring your camera, warm clothes, something to eat and some hot coffee, tea or chocolate. Cross your fingers and hope that the Northern Lights will show up! 🙂 And the more days you have, the more likely you are to get lucky and see nature’s most spectacular light show.

Northern Lights dancing over our cabin in Kvaenangen.

There are also several tour operators doing Northern Lights Chase in and around Tromso. They take you out in the evening to wherever the highest possibility of seeing Northern Lights are. The chase is by bus, minibus, car or boat. 

Choose the tour that that is best for you regarding price, the number of people in the group, duration and what you prefer it to include (dinner, photo tour and so on). Joining one of these tours, you have a good chance of finding the Northern Lights even if it takes the whole night. 

You can also join a Northern Lights activity, like dog sledding, reindeer sledding, skiing, snowmobile, fjord cruise, horse riding, snowshoe trip, sauna, outdoor camping, and sailing, while watching the Northern Lights. These activities take place in remote areas outside of Tromso city, away from the city lights and light pollution. These are great experiences, especially when the Northern Lights show up, but still great even if you don`t get to see it.

Northern Lights in Ersfjord, Tromso.

If you are unlucky, however, and do not see the Northern Lights, there is always the nest-best-thing – the spectacular Northern Lights movie “Experience the Aurora” at Nordnorsk Vitensenter. The film is awesome and is shown every day. A real must-see if you are visiting Tromso, even if you get to see the real thing or not.

Have you seen Northern or Southern Lights, and if so where? If you have not, is this on your bucket list? Please leave a comment in the comment area below, thanks!

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Maria

Maria is a Norwegian travel nerd, who has explored more than thirty countries on four continents. She holds a masters degree in Computer Science, as well as an MBA. See our about page for more about Maria.

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