Me­te­o­rol­o­gist's tips for seeing the Northern Lights

Many go to Lapland for the Northern Lights. Meteorologist Markus Mäntykannas gave us a few tips on how to organise the trip if you want to see the Northern Lights.

Autumn and late winter are the best seasons for Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are present all year round, but they are only visible to us if the sky is sufficiently dark and clear. This is why the Northern Lights are mainly visible from September to April.

You are most likely to see the Northern Lights near the autumnal and spring equinox. During those times, the earth is in a position where the sun shines directly towards the equator and the magnetic field is shaped so that it best directs the particles leaving the sun to the North and South Pole regions. During the winter solstice, the earth's magnetic field undergoes changes that slightly reduce the probability of seeing the Northern Lights.

So autumn and late winter are the best times for seeing the Northern Lights

- The early spring is also a good time to travel to Lapland for the Northern Lights, because in February-March the cloud cover is minimal, unlike in early winter, Markus says. Markus also says that you should avoid the times around full moons if you want to see the Northern Lights. - The moon reflects a lot more light than you might think, which can make it difficult to see the Northern Lights, he continues.

In addition to the best time for Northern Lights, the darkness and the clear sky, you also need a northern location.

Meteorologi Markus Mäntykannas

Where are the Northern Lights seen most often?

The Northern Lights are especially visible in Lapland because the area is close to the polar region. The sun is constantly erupting and the solar winds move particles towards the earth. The Northern Lights are created when the particles collide with the atmosphere. The magnetic field’s shape helps the particles move towards the polar region.

You are most likely to see the Northern Lights on the 70th parallel latitude, from Kilpisjärvi and Utsjoki to Northern Norway. Statistically, there can be Northern Lights at Kilpisjärvi as often as three nights out of four, and on the Kolari-Sodankylä axis they are visible every other night. However, you need a cloudless sky to see the Northern Lights.

- Even if the weather forecasts look cloudy, do not give up hope. In reality, there rarely is a completely clear sky, Markus says.

It is worth following the cloud forecasts. You can look up satellite and radar images to see how clouds move. Often, the fells also influence where the clouds go. Even if the sky is cloudy, it’s worth trying to record the northern lights by using a system camera and a long exposure time. The camera captures more light than the naked eye can see.

You can also look at the Northern Lights forecasts. They area available, for example, on the space weather page of the Finnish Meteorological Institute or in the My Aurora Borealis application. The Northern Light predictions are based on measuring solar activity which is then used to predict the probability of the Northern Lights.

The Northern Lights forecasts usually give you some clues. However, you should not trust them completely. Even if the forecast says that the probability is small, the Northern Lights may still be visible in the sky.

If you are travelling with your own car or using a rental car, for example, you can try to look for a place where the sky is clear of clouds. In any case, you should move away from light pollution to the darkest place possible, Markus says.

The location has a big impact on the probability of seeing the Northern Lights. In Helsinki, for example, the probability of seeing the Northern Lights is only one night a month, so the probability of seeing them decreases a lot when you move south.

Kuva: Matila Röhr Productions (Marko Junttila)

Northern Lights have a clear daily rhythm

- The Northern Lights follow a clear daily rhythm. At midnight, the likelihood of seeing them is at its highest, but you should also watch the sky for the Northern Lights from six p.m. until the early hours of the morning, Markus says.

- Spotting the Northern Lights takes patience. Once they appear in the sky, your patience is rewarded handsomely.

- You should also dress warmly for your Northern Lights trip. Waiting for the Northern Lights can get surprisingly cold.

- Good gloves and wooly socks are key.

By night train to the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are conveniently and comfortably accessible when you take the night train, according to Markus. During his travels to Lapland, he favours the night train because of its ease, but also because of its environmental friendliness.

- Today, more and more people take the environmentally friendly approach when thinking about what is the most sensible way to travel. In Finland, the train is a damn good option.

When it comes to travelling to Lapland, it is the top option. A train is a completely carbon-neutral form of travel that does not harm nature.

- Slow travel and seeing how nature changes along the way is very captivating and exciting.

Now is a good time to plan your trip: Good northern lights years lie ahead

The last few years have been rather muted in terms of northern lights activity, but the situation is about to change. The activity of the sun varies in cycles of a little over 10 years, which can be observed through the prevalence of sunspots. The probability and extent of the occurrence of northern lights correlates with the number of sunspots.

Usually, the years with least lorthern lights activity occur after the period with the minimal number of sunspots (the previous minimum was in December 2019). The next sunspot maximum will take place between 2023 and 2026, so the occurrence of northern lights will gradually increase. As the 2020s progress, the probability of Northern Nights will increase in different parts of Finland, and there may be some spectacular light shows.

– Now is the time to get your camera ready and start planning your trip north – the best times are approaching, says Markus.

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