Need-to-know: the Northern Lights

Travel expert Sophie Pither gives us the lowdown on one of the world’s most impressive natural displays – and where best to see them.

What are the Northern Lights?

The dancing lights of aurora borealis (named by Galileo after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas) are created when gaseous particles in our atmosphere crash into charged particles from the sun’s 5,000+˚C atmosphere, blown our way on solar winds. The lights’ pale green shimmers are produced by oxygen molecules about 60 miles above earth. More unusual red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, about 200 miles above earth, and nitrogen produces purplish effects.

What will I see?

A shimmering green glow is the most common sighting, but auroral light can appear in shades of red, yellow, blue and violet. It may appear in intermittent, scant, radiant clouds of light, or form clear arcs, wavy shifting curtains, or even shooting rays.

When is the best time to see them?

Autumn and winter on cold, clear, dark nights, at around midnight. The lights occur all year, but we are most able to see them when the sky is dark, from somewhere without too much light pollution. Download apps for alerts about when they’re likely to be visible. Check http://aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk/alerts/ for the UK.

Where can I see them?

The further north you go the better the chance of seeing this stunning natural phenomenon. Northern Scandinavia, Iceland, northern Canada, Greenland, and northern Russia all get regular displays from September to April, and northern Scotland from about November. Due to their allure, myriad Northern Lights-spotting holidays are on offer.

Iceland - Even around Reykjavik visibility is good to see the Northern Lights. You can combine dipping in geothermal pools by day with aurora-hunting excursions to lava fields just outside the capital by night. Iceland Air is one company offering trips.

Finland - In Finnish Lapland, the traditional ways to aurora spot are snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or dog-sledge touring. But if you prefer warm toes, there are purpose-built indoor viewing spaces. The Wilderness Hotel in Nellim, by Lake Inari in the wild north, offers ‘aurora bubbles- – heated Perspex-domed pods for overnight gazing at the arctic light show, with double beds and eco- toilets. See Visit Finland for more options. By day, there’s snowmobiling, ice fishing, husky sledging and skiing.

Canada - Canadian Geographic publishes an online map (http://maps.canadiangeographic.ca/northern-lights-across-canada/) for prime viewing spots all over Canada. One ultra-remote option is Blachford Lake Lodge, accessible by seaplane in Canada’s northern territories, with sightings possible on 240 nights per year. The lodge’s five log cabins with wood-burning stoves have an aurora-view outdoor hot tub.

Scotland - Parts of northern Scotland lie on the same latitude as Nunivak Island in Alaska, so you may well spot the ‘mirrie dancers’ as the Shetlanders call them. Head to Shetland, Orkney or Caithness for wildlife and sky watcher’s nirvana, although when the conditions are good, you may even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in southern Scotland. Visit Scotland has plenty of accommodation options.

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