April 9 2023
The northern lights had been on my bucket list ever since I discovered they existed, and seeing them in person did not disappoint. They are so special because you can only see them in certain regions of the world, at certain times of the year.
If you find yourself in an area where they can be spotted, or you are traveling to a destination with high hopes of seeing them, this guide will help you to maximize your chances of seeing them.
Depending on where you are traveling, there may be an organized tour you can take to try and see them. These tours are typically found in popular destinations/ big cities (ex. Reykjavik, Oslo, Norway, etc.). If the destination you are traveling to does not offer a tour but you still want to see the northern lights don’t worry, because this guide is going to tell you everything you need to know in order to have as good of a chance of seeing them as if you were on a tour.
The first thing you need to know is that you are never guaranteed to see the northern lights. Not to get into the science, but they occur when electrons from the sun strike and react in a way with the electrons in the earth’s atmosphere, which reacts and releases light (which we see as the northern lights). Because this is a phenomenon, it is therefore not constantly occurring which is why even if the conditions are all met, you still may not see them. There are a few conditions that have to be met in order to be able to see them; this just means that after these conditions are all met you have a chance of seeing them, but even if they are all met it is not guaranteed that you will see them. This is also why I would highly recommend learning how to find them yourself instead of booking a tour.
What to know
The KP index
The KP index is a scale that measures the amount of aurora activity within the earth’s atmosphere (so essentially how strongly the sun is currently reacting with the earth’s atmosphere). Think about the KP index like you would the weather app; it is based on certain locations. The KP index is the same, you can set it to a certain region and it will show you a map of how strong the KP currency is, or is forecasted to be that day/ that week.
Another thing you need to know about the KP index is that it is measured on a scale from 0-9, where 0 means there is no solar activity (and therefore no northern lights) to 9 meaning there is strong solar activity (and lots of northern lights). If the Kp is 1-3, the lights will appear faint but you will still be able to see the colour. If the KP is 4-6, the lights will be of medium brightness, and if the KP is from 7-9 the lights will be really strong and vibrant.
This one is probably what you will hear the most, that you need a clear sky to see the northern lights and this is true! There is a correlation between the KP index and could cover, which I’ll get to after. The main thing you need to know is that you need a clear sky to see the northern lights. And this is because the lights occur above all clouds, and so if there are clouds they will block your view of the lights if they are currently happening. If the clouds are not that thick and the northern lights are very strong, you may be able to see the color/ a glow from the clouds, but it will not be the same as if you were looking at them without the clouds. If there are some clouds but also space without clouds, you may be able to see the northern lights between the clouds.
How to actually see/ find them
Once you understand how the northern lights work & what conditions you need to to spot them, finding them is only a matter of getting yourself to a region without any clouds. In order to do this, there are a few apps you can use. I use the app aurora; it did everything you need and I would definitely recommend it. You can either select your current location, or enter a custom location. It then gives you cloud coverage maps for the next few hours, as well as the KP index hourly and for the upcoming week.
What to do
If the KP index is at least a 2.3, you will be able to notice the lights; at 2.3 it will be a really faint glow and anything less you likely won’t see. Once you have analyzed the KP index, if it is high enough that you will be able to see the lights, you’ll now have to check the cloud coverage map. When you find an area without clouds, this is where you want to be. Once you arrive at your location, all you can do now is look at the sky and wait for them to appear. The good thing about hunting for them yourself is if you get to your location and clouds appear, you can check the map and head to another location. Remember again that even if all the conditions are met, it is never guaranteed that you will see the lights. Another app that I found helpful is hello aurora; I liked this app because people can post pictures with the locations of the lights as they spot them, so it can give you live updates on what locations near you are currently observing the lights.