You need look no further than David Attenborough’s fantastic show Planet Earth to see that the natural world is full of astounding sights and experiences.
Although the animal kingdom provides much of the entertainment on “Planet Earth”, there’s no denying that the natural world is the unspoken star of the show, with stunning natural backdrops providing a vivid canvas for the action onscreen.
With that in mind, for our December travel feature we figured; why not write up a piece looking at some of the best natural tourism on the planet? And, when it comes to tourism, few natural sights quite capture the imagination as much as aurora borealis – the Northern Lights. So without further ado, here is In The City Magazine’s guide to chasing the Northern Lights…
How can I see the Northern Lights?
Sadly, this is a question without any definitive answer. Much like other weather phenomena, the Northern Lights aren’t guaranteed to be located in any one place at any particular time. A wealth of online meteorology websites have popped up tracking patterns to try and inform users of the best times to try and seek out the Northern Lights, but ultimately it often comes down to a combination of luck and picking the right time of year/night to best seek them out.
Traditionally, most tourists will travel somewhere in the far Northern Hemisphere to try and track down the lights. Destinations like Iceland and Scandinavian countries like Finland and Norway have proved hugely popular for tourists, yielding the highest possibility of catching the lights. As a result of this interest, tour companies have popped up across the board offering expeditions out to try and find the best spot to see the lights – these can be night excursions from your hotel, right the way through to full camping adventures in high-end glamping facilities.
What are the Northern Lights?
A spectacular explosion of colour caused by electrically charged particles from the sun crashing against the Earth’s atmosphere, aurora borealis is (rightfully) seen as one of nature’s most vivid and exciting natural phenomena.
The lights down under
Though we might know the phenomena as “The Northern Lights”, in truth this exceptional experience also has a southern hemisphere counterpart. Named Aurora Australis, the lights in the Southern Hemisphere are every bit as elusive as their northern cousins, but can be found in southernmost points including Patagonia (in Argentina) and Australia, offering adventurers a chance to see the dazzling lights in slightly more temperate climes.
Where is best to see the Northern Lights?
As mentioned above, there isn’t necessarily a guaranteed place to see the lights, but there are some ways you can optimise your chances. In terms of geographical positioning, the further north a person is the better chance they will have of seeing the lights on display if conditions are right. As previously mentioned, many Scandinavian countries have an entire economy based around aurora borealis tourism. These offer tourists not just higher chances of seeing the lights than at home, but also more options to suit any kind of traveller, allowing holidaymakers the opportunity to tailor-make their own experiences.
However, you needn’t go abroad to see the lights. Sightings of the Northern Lights in the UK are comparatively rare compared to the likes of Norway or Iceland, but they aren’t entirely unheard of. One rule that remains crucial amidst lights hunters is that sightings are much more common in rural areas. As such, in the UK most common northern lights sightings happen in hugely rural areas, especially countryside areas. If you can’t afford/justify a trip overseas to Scandinavia to see the lights, a domestic trip out into the Welsh/Scottish countryside could be just as productive and has added bonuses of being able to sort out at (almost) last minute, meaning you can use online sites to potentially optimise your chances.
One of the UK’s more popular areas for northern lights tourism tends to be the north of Scotland, with cities and towns like Aberdeen or Stonehaven making a good home-base for rural trips out to potentially see the lights. Scotland’s geographical positioning in the Northern hemisphere might mean it suffers more from dismal British weather, but it certainly reaps the rewards of stunning visual displays!
For truly intrepid travellers, a trip off-coast could also be a great way to seek out the lights without leaving the greater UK. Trips up to the Shetland Islands (including Skaw, on the island of Unst, the northernmost settlement in the United Kingdom) run from Scotland via both boat and plane – subject to availability. Though not necessarily the best idea in winter, trips up this way in milder weather can yield some fascinating sights. With the Northern Lights, a combination of good planning, luck and a sense of adventure can make all the difference.
By sea, land or air?
It’s no small surprise that the fervent nature of northern lights tourism has created a wealth of options for travellers seeking out the lights. The most cost effective method would be by land – hiking expeditions to natural high spots can be entirely self-organised and offer a personal way to try and seek out the lights. Of course, if you worry that you’ll miss the lights and the crowds will have better look, hiking expeditions are also often run by tour companies and guides in areas that see lots of solar activity.
As previously mentioned, rural areas tend to yield more sightings of the lights, in no small part due to the fact they aren’t affected by high levels of light pollution in towns and cities. As such, an increasingly popular option for tourists has been to take to the sky in a northern lights flight expedition. Flights run from as far afield as Birmingham and London and often travel overnight to the reaches of the northern hemisphere to try and spot the lights. Costs vary greatly, but the uncertain nature of the lights can make this a risky proposition.
A final hugely popular option has been to undertake a cruise – offering all the luxuries and amenities of transport alongside the freedom to get directly under the stars and engage with the phenomenon unfettered, this option generally costs the most but yields some of the best results and experiences.