How to finally see Aurora (Northern Lights)?

Check those 7 steps that will help you to finally see Aurora.

How to finally see aurora?

Northern lights Iceland
Northern lights Iceland

For a long time I had a dream to see Aurora.  It’s an unforgettable experience! Do you have that dream as well? I managed to see it 5 times with very little effort and I don’t even live in the location where aurora is very common (I didn’t even know that it’s possible to see it from here before I moved). I will share my tips, to help you increase your chances of spotting it yourself – keep on reading 😉

But first let’s get to know something more about those magical lights.

Aurora Iceland
Aurora Iceland

What is Aurora?

Aurora (called Aurora Borealis and Northern Lights in northern latitudes or Southern lights and Aurora Australis as their southern counterpart) is a natural light phenomenon.

It originates millions miles away on the surface of the Sun during the electromagnetic explosion, which creates a stream of solar particles, known as Solar Wind. When the wind goes into Earth’s direction  – this is when we can see Aurora, usually three or four nights later.

Solar particles interact with Earth magnetic field and some of them escape into the atmosphere, around the magnetic poles (hence aurora is visible mostly in high latitudes). The collision of those solar particles with air molecules in the atmosphere generates energy, which is then transferred into light. When the emission happens on a big scale – this is when we can see strong lights on the night sky (more here).

They usually have different forms – they might appear as a glow of light or create “curtains” or “arcs”. They might be quiet, or evolve and move through the sky – this is when we call them “dancing lights”.

You can see aurora in different colours – depending on the types of atoms involved in the collision, which varies with height. Below 60 miles (100 km) there are blue lights, purple occurs at 60 miles and above, bright green between 60‑150 miles (100‑240 km), and red appearing above 150 miles (240 km).

Northern lights in iceland
Northern lights in Iceland

Where to see Aurora?

Most of auroras appear in the “auroral zone”, which is of 3° to 6° width and between 10° and 20° from geomagnetic poles. It means – the closer to the pole you are, the higher chance of seeing aurora. However, with particular strong activity, they are occasionally seen even more south (for example Poland and France last year).

When is the best time to see Aurora?

Because it’s a natural phenomenon,  highly dependent on the solar activity, it is extremely hard to accurately predict the exact time to see Northern or Southern Lights. However, based on the existing data and monitoring of the sun activity some assumptions and “forecasts” can be made (more about it later on).

Winter months (November to March in the north hemisphere), when the nights are longer and it’s getting dark earlier, are the most popular time of the year for Aurora hunting. However, it’s also possible to see it different times of the year – we managed to see Northern Lights three nights in the row in Iceland at the beginning of September.

Northern lights Iceland

What is the best time of the day to see Aurora?

It is not uncommon, that the predicted highest Aurora activity is for the middle of the day. Unfortunately, this is not very useful, because for the Northern Lights to be visible – the sky needs to be dark. The optimal times during the night would be from around 9pm – 2-3am, but as long as it’s dark, you might still be able to see them.

7 steps that will increase your chances to see Aurora:

free checklist to see aurora

1. Monitor Aurora forecast:

There are several pages and apps, that try to estimate the possibility of Aurora happenings at specific times. Bare in mind, however, that it’s only the assumptions, and currently the correct forecast can be done only around 2 hours in advance. You can get your bearings around though and plan a bit, even if it doesn’t work out this time.

During our first night in Iceland in Reykjavik, we managed to have clear sky. After having dinner on the campsite’s tables outside I checked my phone app for the aurora activity and it showed KP4 (explanation for KPs below). It would normally be too little for Scotland, but not for Iceland. On our way to town I was looking intensely into the north direction and I saw it! Green lights hanging over the horizon. We immediately turned the car, changing our plans from night out in city center to aurora hunting, drove out of the city and we had opportunity to see the most amazing Northern Lights spectacle, that I’ve ever seen!

Here are the ones that I use:

When you go to Aurora Service website, you will see KP index map.

What is KP index?

It’s a number that determines your chance of seeing aurora in the place where you are. It’s a numeric system of geomagnetic activity. KP 0 means very weak or not existing activity, KP 9  is very strong, that may even cause aurora to be visible from the southern parts of Europe like Poland or France. It’s not exact, so if you are in the place where the map says KP 6, you can still try to go out and hunt aurora when the app says KP 5, as you might be lucky. It’s just the guide, so don’t treat it as a definite information – aurora is very hard to predict.

2. Check cloud coverage

In order to be able to see Aurora, the sky needs to be clear. If there are some clouds, you might still spot Aurora glow,  but if the whole sky is covered – you’re not going to see much. In the UK I usually use Metoffice cloud coverage website to check hourly coverage in my area.

Northern lights in Iceland

3. Check social media (Instagram and Facebook groups)

There are many people all over the world constantly trying to hunt for Aurora (called “Aurora hunters”). You can find many groups on Facebook, where people share tips for seeing Northern Lights, best places in the local area and, most importantly, last minute pictures from their recent viewings. Because I am based a bit more in the south than other people in the northern Scotland, before heading off for Aurora hunt, I usually check if someone else more north from me can see any Aurora signs, as a confirmation, that I might be able to see them, as well.

Facebook groups, that I use are: Aurora Research Scotland, Aurora Hunters UK.

If you type “Aurora” in Facebook search and your location, you will find many others. On Instagram look for #aurora and #northernlights hashtags and your location.

Also, follow worlderingaround on facebook – I post there the current high aurora activities alerts.

4. Find a good spot – dark, north and elevated

Once you confirm, that you have a chance to see Aurora tonight, you need to find a good place for watching it. You want it to be very dark. Get as far from the city lights as possible. Find a spot with minimum light pollution and a view with non obscured open horizon to the north (unless you are very far north, then you can see Northern Lights also above your head). Climbing a hill may be a good idea, as it gives you an open view to the horizon.

Aurora in Scotland

5. Adjust your eyes to the darkness

It happens, especially when the Northern Lights are weak and you are not used to finding them, that you might have difficulties to see anything. That’s why it’s important, that your eyes get used to the darkness – don’t look at any bright spots or car lights, adjust your phone brightness to the minimum and try to look into the darkness.

6. Know what to look for

Aurora not always is bright green and purple. At the first time when I saw it, at the beginning it was rather grey until it gained more colours. Sometimes you want to see Aurora so badly, that you can take any source of bright light for the Northern Lights. Especially close to the cities, you can see the light reflecting in the sky, that can look very similar to Aurora. Here are few questions, that you can ask yourself to check if what you saw was really an Aurora.

After knowing that I am in a dark place, far away from light pollution, with a clear sky, overlooking the north, I usually do a check with my camera (next point), look for a green colour (it’s the most common here) and look at the shape of the possible Aurora lights  (many times it’s just a glow over the horizon, but I recognized it several times thanks to its moving arches).

After you see it couple of times, it will be easier for you to distinguish it. When we were in Iceland and we saw it 3 nights in a row, I was able to spot very faint one through the window, even with the house lights around, when nobody else couldn’t see anything.

7. Use your camera wisely

Especially with weak Auroras, it might be challenging to see it in a proper colour with bare eye and might be much better with a camera. This is because, we can’t adjust the amount of light that’s coming into our eyes, however, you can do it with the camera (which has a function for setting the exposure times and aperture settings). The longer the exposure, the more light is coming into the camera, and when used correctly it will catch Aurora with beautiful strong vivid colours.

 More about taking pictures of Aurora in the next post.

Northern lights in scotland
Northern lights in Scotland

I hope that information and tips will help you too finally see Aurora. Have a very happy Aurora hunting!

Have you managed to see Aurora (Northern Lights)? Let me know in the comments and if you find this article helpful, please share it along!

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How to finally see aurora?


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4 thoughts on “How to finally see Aurora (Northern Lights)?

  1. I can’t believe you were able to witness the Aurora Borealis as early as September in Iceland! That is really rare to see it happen around that time of the year. Lucky you!

    1. I know! We were really lucky,and we saw it three times. It just shows that Aurora is very unpredictable and it’s worth checking it even during unusual times of the year 😉

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