Anyone planning a Northern Lights hunt in Norway needs to know their geography.
The capital of this long and thin country's capital, Oslo, is too far south of the Arctic Circle to see the aurora borealis. So it's to northern Norway you should head, and Tromsø is firmly in the middle of the aurora zone. This is peak Northern Lights viewing territory, and there are plenty of tours organized for visitors hoping for a glimpse.
For the more adventurous, Svalbard's long Polar Night in January and February — with just the occasional hint of blue twilight — gives an almost 24/7 opportunity to view the Northern Lights. However, at almost 78° N, it’s actually above the Arctic Circle where the Northern Lights are most common, so if you do see aurora, they will most likely be in the southern sky. Just watch out for polar bears.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are electrically charged particles from the sun that smash into Earth's magnetic field. They're funneled down to the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres, creating a horseshoe-shape of excited green (and occasionally brown and red) particles that swivel and shape-shift over the Arctic Circle.
This process is more intense during solar maximum, the period when the sun is at its most active, but that won't occur again until about 2024. However, that doesn't mean you should postpone your Northern Lights hunt. Although intense solar storms are currently less common, they still do occur frequently, and the Northern Lights are a constant sight in the skies above the Arctic Circle. The bigger concern is finding clear skies, which are never guaranteed in this part of the world.
What’s the best time to go in 2019?
Norway's peak season for the Northern Lights is between September and March, though that's to do more with the long, dark nights at this time of year rather than an increase in solar activity. Forecasting the Northern Lights means predicting solar activity, which is virtually impossible with our current technology.
However, despite not being able to predict them, what we do know is that the Northern Lights are best seen between 65° N and 75° N. Although the capital, Oslo, sits at just 60° N, northern Norway's latitude puts it in the ideal position to experience the Northern Lights.
Displays of the Northern Lights do tend to intensify around the equinox months of September and March because the magnetic fields of the Earth and the Sun’s solar wind are more likely to be in sync. There are no guarantees, but stronger displays are therefore more likely around the spring equinox on March 20, 2019 and around the autumn equinox on Sept. 23, 2019. Since there are full moons on March 21, 2019 and on Sept. 14, 2019, the final weeks of both March and September 2019 would be ideal times to go on a Northern Lights hunt in Norway.
Northern Lights season in Norway
The Northern lights are always happening, it's just that you don't see them during the day. While the Arctic Circle's midnight sun makes it impossible to see them during the summer, the long dark nights of winter are perfect for Northern Lights viewing.
November through March is the absolute peak season for Northern Lights viewing because the nights are longest, but a visit anytime between September and March should give you a good chance to see them, with March offering the best chance of clear skies. Just make sure you're on the lookout throughout the night to maximize your chances. It makes sense to set your alarm to get up every hour or so after dusk to look out of your window. Better still, some hotels have an aurora wake-up service so you can sleep without worrying that you’re missing out.
Best places to see the Northern Lights
Northern Lights near Tromsø
Sitting at 69° N right in the center of the aurora zone, the city of Tromsø is a popular place for Europeans to take a weekend break in winter just hoping for a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Although you can sometimes see them from the town, for the best view it's better to get away from the city’s significant light pollution. The Lyngsalpene mountain range is where many local Northern Lights chases take place.
Northern Lights near Trondheim
A fraction below the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 63° N, Trondheim in central Norway marks the southern limit of the Northern Lights zone. Seeing them here is relatively rare, however, and they only occur during particularly strong solar activity.
Northern Lights near Svalbard
Between mainland Norway and the North Pole, this island realm of fjords, glaciers, mountains, and polar bears is, at 78° N, as far as you would want to go to see the Northern Lights. Stay in Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost town, and take organized dogsledding, snowmobile, or snowcat adventures into the wilderness. You don't even need to do them by night to catch the Northern Lights; Svalbard's long Polar Night leaves it in darkness almost 24/7 from November through mid-February. However, Longyearbyen is rather light-polluted, so you need to get away from the town and into polar bear-territory … it’s best to take a tour.
Northern Lights forecast
SolarHam gives a reliable three-day geomagnetic forecast used by aurora hunters, while the Aurora Forecast app shows you the position of the auroral oval around the Arctic Circle, and also indicates the probability of seeing them where you are.
A great resource unique to this part of Scandinavia is Yr from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, which will help greatly with finding a cloud-free corridor in this part of the world. Also useful is Norway Lights, which gives a prediction using data on both Northern Lights activity and cloud cover.
Norway Northern Lights tours
As with Reykjavík in Iceland, there are many Northern Lights trips available from Tromsø. Marianne’s Heaven on Earth Aurora Tours organizes a 12-hour Northern Lights photography trip from Tromsø, tuition included.
If you're on the ground, take warm clothing — and an extra layer — although you can usually warm-up in the bus. Visit Norway offers a short flight from Tromsø in a small plane to view the Northern Lights from above the clouds.
Although its latitude of 60° N puts it south of the Arctic Circle, there's a special reason to travel to Bergen to see the Northern Lights; this is where Norwegian Coastal Ferries' 12-day Hurtigruten Classic Round Voyage departs from. It reaches Kirkenes via 34 ports of call (including Tromsø), and it even has a 100-percent Northern Lights guarantee.