Aurora expert Mike Kosch explains why this year should be an ideal time to see the Northern Lights, and narrows down the top viewing destinations.
are the Northern Lights?
Auroras are caused by charged particles getting
trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field lines, which come out of the top of the
North and the South Poles. The light we see is particles blown from the sun
bashing into the atmosphere and energising the oxygen and nitrogen that is
present. The green and red colours are oxygen, while the blue colours are essentially
will 2012 be a good year to see the aurora?
The sun has a cycle around 12 years long, during which the number of sunspots –
dark areas indicating intense magnetic activity – go up and down. More sunspots
mean more particles being ejected and trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field,
and thus more aurora activity. Solar maximum – when the number of sunspots is
at its peak – is predicted to be in the next couple of years, which means we
are in a very good position to be viewing auroras.
the best place in the north to see auroras?
The “auroral oval” is a ring-shaped region around 70 degrees latitude north,
where auroras occur virtually on a daily basis, and includes Tromsø in Norway,
Kiruna in Sweden and Rovaniemi in Finland. Canada and Alaska are also good. It
is possible to see the aurora in the UK too: the further north, the better. The
more exciting auroras are seen in higher latitudes, where the structures and
colours are more beautiful. In the UK, they are likely to be diffuse, uniform
glows on the northern horizon.
can you know when there is auroral activity?
Auroras make no sound, so unless you’re alert, you'll miss them. In 2003 there
was a magnetic storm, one of the largest ever. Most of Europe would have seen
it had they looked. We set up AuroraWatch,
so people can be alerted to magnetic activity.
places to see the Northern Lights
Norway’s most northerly city enjoys an energetic
social scene, and is one of the best places in the world to see auroras, with a Northern Lights festival each January.
Stay: Clarion Hotel Bryggen is
by the harbour, and has a rooftop whirlpool bath, too (from £120).
How to get there: Fly to Tromsø from
Manchester and Heathrow, via Oslo (from
With the sun in a more active phase, it’s
increasingly likely that northeast Scotland, including beautiful Lunan Bay just
north of Dundee, will see Northern Lights displays.
Stay: The food at Gordon’s is
highly rated, as are the five rooms. Lunan beach is two miles away (£90)
How to get there: Nearby Montrose is nearly two hours by
train from Edinburgh (from £12).
A history of mining makes Kiruna more gritty than pretty, but its northerly
position means it’s a great place to see auroras. The Jukkasjärvi Ice Hotel is
a few miles away.
Stay: Hotel Vinterpalatset has pretty rooms, and
the game breakfasts verge on the decadent (from £95).
How to get there: Fly to Kiruna from Heathrow and Edinburgh via
Stockholm (from £250).
Professor Mike Kosch is an experimental space scientist at the University of Lancaster.
This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.