If we could answer this question we would be rich beyond the dreams of men!
As a naturally occurring phenomenon, the appearance of the Northern Lights is notoriously difficult to predict any further in advance than about two hours before it happens. So much is dependent on solar activity and, whilst we can estimate the number of sunspots that might occur on the sun, we can accurately predict neither when they will occur nor how frequently.The best we can do is to provide a rough guide based on certain timescales. In iceland our biggest enemy is the cloud-cover. So check out the weather forecast, and head out to where it looks clear enough to be able to see through the clouds. Remember though that partly cloud covered sky only adds a contrast to the proto.
The Solar Cycle – Solar Maximum/Solar Minimum
Our Sun goes through an activity cycle that lasts approximately 11 years and sees it pass through Solar Maximum (highest solar activity) and Solar Minimum (lowest solar activity). The Northern Lights are more prevalent during Solar Maximum the last of which occurred in June 2014.
Generally speaking, the Aurora Borealis will remain very active for two to three years either side of Solar Maximum which effectively means that the current maximum has just passed its half way stage.
There is further research to suggest that more significant solar events occur in the declining period following Solar Maximum which bodes well if you are planning a trip in the next couple of years.
The Best Time of the Year
As far as we are aware (and we’ve searched long and hard) there is no definitive research to suggest that any particular time of year brings with it a greater preponderance of Northern Lights. Auroras occur throughout the year but the light summer months render them invisible to the eye so we have to focus on the rest of the year.
All we can do then is rely on our years of experience chasing the Aurora. So, roughly speaking and with absolutely no guarantees, here are our thoughts on the subject.
January to March
These are probably the three most popular months for Aurora hunting because they bring long dark nights and plenty of snow to play in during the daylight hours while you wait for darkness to fall.
In the Arctic, January is a time of renewal as the sun reappears above the horizon but it can be very, very cold indeed. Nevertheless, it is sometimes said that the Aurora is more likely to appear on colder nights so perhaps we could recommend January to hardier souls.
Generally speaking, February sees the weather slowly improving and in March, the temperatures begin to rise although it can still get pretty nippy especially at night. A thick, pristine layer of snow covers the ground and, because most of the winter snow has fallen, it could be said that there are less snow clouds overhead to obscure the Aurora.
There is some speculation that the spring and autumn Equinoxes (around 20 March and 20 September) bring greater solar activity. Combine this with slightly warmer temperatures and improving weather (with the possibility of less cloud cover) and you may feel compelled to go Aurora hunting in late-March or very early April. The daylight hours will be stretching out by then so you’ll have to be prepared for some late nights but this can be a very rewarding time of year in The Auroral Zone.
The Best Time of Day
First and foremost, to see the Northern Lights, the skies must be dark. This immediately rules out daylight hours and, contrary to popular opinion, it is not pitch black in the Aurora Zone for the entire winter. Indeed, despite the sun not appearing above the horizon, even the shortest day, 21 December, brings three to four hours of grey/blue light which renders the Northern Lights invisible to the naked eye.
Once darkness falls, the Aurora can be visible at any time of day and we have seen them as early as 4pm and as late as 6am (that was quite a night!). Nevertheless, the optimum time seems to be around 9.30pm to 1am and that is when we concentrate the majority of our searches.
As ever with Mother Nature, these things are impossible to predict and autumn 2014 has been unusual in that the lights have appeared earlier than usual and often, very often, billowed across the night sky into the very early hours.
The secret to seeing the Aurora Borealis is patience. If your snowmobile or minibus or snowshoe search is unsuccessful then it is very often the people who brave the cold night rather than those who sneak off to a warm bed who have a tale to tell at breakfast time.
How likely am I to see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are Mother Nature’s creation and as such we can’t even use historical data to predict how likely you are to witness a display. The Sun’s activity varies, cloud cover varies, solar winds vary and these and other factors can all influence the likelihood of seeing the Aurora. Indeed, accurately predicting an Auroral display is only possible a few hours at best before it happens because the interaction of solar wind with the Earth’s magnetic field is crucial. So, while we may know that the Sun has thrown a Coronal Mass Ejection our way, we don’t know how it will react when it reaches us. What we do at The Aurora Zone is seek to maximise your chances of seeing an Aurora. There are certain ways of doing this which we have discussed elsewhere but you can help yourself too. It is no coincidence that persistence and vigilance pay dividends and this can mean some seriously late nights. We will take you out during the peak hours of roughly 9 pm and 1 am (this may vary according to local conditions and/or Auroral forecasts) but the Northern Lights are fickle and we can’t simply turn them on with the flick of a switch. Hence, if they don’t appear before we return you to your warm accommodation, you may wish to stay out longer, perhaps somewhere sheltered down by a lake where you’ll often find others have gathered for the same purpose. If Lady Aurora decides to stay wrapped up warm in front of the fire, if nothing else, you’ll all have a jolly good laugh and make some new friends.