When The Sky Turns Green

Ansoo Gupta will help you bust your travel bucket-list item by item. This month she answers some basic questions to simplify your Must-See-Northern-Lights travel.

If there are things that you really want to do before you kick-the-bucket, will you put them in a list and forget about them or will you always be on the lookout to accomplish those things ?
Seeing an Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) display is one such to-do. Everybody wants to see the Aurora but it is comfortably placed in the bucket-list and forgotten. Vacation after vacations are planned and enjoyed but somehow planning to go see the Northern Lights somehow doesn’t come up.  Even though the experience is the most magical on earth.
Picture yourself outside on a cold, clear dark night. Low on the horizon you notice a faint glow of greenish light which forms an arch, stretching lazily across the sky. As time passes, additional bands of light form and drift overhead, slowly brightening to form giant waves in the sky that move lazily across the sky.  Suddenly, the waves  start brightening with a reddish tint and begin to ripple faster. Blues and purples appear. As the waves pass directly over your head, you see bright points of light that swirl like a pinwheel. The entire sky seems to be full of color and motion. Then, after several minutes, everything fades into a warm green glow again. If you are lucky, you see the display again the same night.
I have  some news for you :  astrophysicists’ studies have shown that we are in a ‘high aurora activity’ period till 2014. You see, sun goes through phases of high and low solar activity every eleven years.  This is known as the solar cycle and is measured by the number of sunspots visible on the sun. The more sunspots, the more solar flare energy is being released into space (which means more aurora activity!).
After three long years of “deep solar minimum” sunspot activity is now on the rise. This is the early stages of Solar Cycle 24 in which “Solar Max” is predicted for around the years 2013-2014. This means we should experience an increasing amount of aurora activity in the next few years.

Why is this news important ?
There are a few elements which make seeing Northern Lights sound very elusive, mysterious,  adventurous and a mix of skill and luck. A bit like climbing Mount Everest. Actually, it is fairly easy to watch the Northern Lights and have a great wholesome vacation just like any other activity.
It is unpredicatable : Yes it is. It is a natural phenomenon and no body can predict when and where will the Aurora Borealis appear. There are a lot of websites on the internet where you can see Aurora forecasts but these get more accurate within a 24 hour period only.  Since we do not stay in the Aurora areas, we need to do a little forward planning to book flights etc . Best bet is to go  in a most favourable window.

What is a favorable window to see the Aurora ?
Even though Auroral activity happens throughout the year (Sun doesn’t stop revolving !), we can’t see the Aurorae in summers because nights don’t get dark in Arctic regions in summer months.  In fact, there are days when you can witness Sun not going below the horizon even at midnight – but we’ll leave for a different travel article 
The darkest nights in Arctic region are from September to March.  This facilitates Aurora viewing. Statistically, the equinox months of September and March are best for aurora activity.
Since these are winter months in the Arctic region and to see the Aurora you have to be out at night, it will most definitely be cold. Very cold.
Hence, it might be wise to select a spot to see Northern Lights, which can also provide you indoor warmth between your periods of standing outside in temperature well below freezing point with your eyes up to the sky mesmerized by a shimmery dark green curtain dancing over your head.  For example, the Aurora Sky station or even watching the Aurora from a ship. You can keep coming out and going back in to warm yourself.
Mythbuster: Contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be cold to see the Aurora, just dark and cloud-free. But clear nights are colder. And these are snow-fall months in Arctic region. Night temperatures of around – 25 degree centigrade are common. And hence the association of Aurora Borealis with chilly weather and snow.

Where should you plan to go to see the Aurora ?
The higher up in latitude you go , close to or even beyond Arctic circle,  the better your chances of seeing the Aurora.

Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia are the countries / regions which have areas in the Polar latitudes. You can choose any towns in this country which promote Aurora tourism like Tromso in Norway , Kiruna in Sweden, Fairbanks in Alaska, Grimsborgir in Iceland etc.
While every country and region has its own charm, Scandinavian countries are a good option for travelers from India due to good airline connectivity and the time and money taken to reach Norway, Sweden, Finland is moderate as compared to Canada / Alaska / Siberia etc. which are farther away and more expensive to reach.
My personal choice is Abisko Sky Station near Kiruna in Sweden (website link).
Since it is always a matter of chance if you will see the Northern Lights or not, it will help you not feel dejected if you could do see and do more in the same vacation. Kiruna is a great option that way. It has an Ice Hotel  – yes, similar to one that you saw in James Bond : ____. Except it is not the same. Because the whole Ice Hotel melts every summer and is rebuilt every winter. Each room is a different ice-sculpture in itself and I can safely say that there is nothing else quite like it !
You can also visit the Iron Ore Mines in Kiruna. _____
That’s not all. There is also a space station near Kiruna. Esrange is the space station

With a town that has so much to offer, do you really need any more tourist-attractions ? But of course, people flock to Kiruna to see the Northern Lights and Abisko Sky station has been constructed keeping this in mind ; If you go to Absiko, you have a very high chance of coming back after seeing the Aurora because Abisko’s micro climate is very well suited for Aurora viewing conditions.

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