When is the best time for aurora?
It is by far the most frequently asked question in aurora tourism! So if you, too, was wondering, get ready to get a definitive answer.
The aurora happens year-round on Earth!
The biggest misconception about the aurora, whether it happens at the north pole (borealis) or at its southern counterpart (australis), is that it only happens in a restricted time during the year. In reality, it is a natural phenomenon that occurs year-round on Earth. The confusion might come from the fact that resort tend to advertise the aurora ‘season’, leaving people to think that they absolutely cannot see the aurora outside of it. In a sense it is relatively true though. The only three factors that define when the aurora can be seen is the terrestrial weather at your location, the weather in space, and last but not least light pollution. The latter plays a paramount role because the aurora is a somewhat faint phenomenon, especially when you compare its overall brightness to the light coming from the Sun for example.
Thus, you can never see the aurora during the day and you would have to wait until at least the late hours of the deep twilight to start making out the colored bands and pillars of light in the sky. As you may know, most of the aurora occurs at higher geographical latitudes on the planet. Since these locations experience a high seasonal variation in daytime and nighttime length, it creates limits to when you can actually see the lights during the year. For example, you won’t be able to see the lights in the northern hemisphere summer if you go to Iceland, northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia or Norway because the nights are too bright (midnight Sun in the arctic circle). The only places on the planet where you can see the lights year-round without interruption are Southern Canada, the upper central states in the USA, Tasmania and New-Zealand. However these destinations are further away from the poles and usually get fewer displays in comparison to higher geomagnetic latitudes.
The aurora has a very elusive and random nature
While the aurora occurs all year, it’s far from being regular and very long-lasting. Except for some rare extremely strong auroral events that happened during what we call geomagnetic storms, where the lights could be seen non-stop for extended periods of time (2-3 days), the aurora is an ephemeral phenomenon. When people usually think about the aurora, they imagine bands and curtains dancing all night long in the endless polar night. This can happen but in reality, the aurora has a very elusive nature. There are no real rules to how the aurora behaves because it depends on so many internal and external factors. Sometimes the aurora can go from absolutely nothing to a sky full of dancing colors in no time. The source of the aurora, our Sun, has random periods of higher activity and solar events are usually sudden, making it impossible to predict with 100% certitude or with long notice when or even how the aurora will appear in the sky. In recent years, scientists have established some correlations between seasons (equinox) and auroral intensity. They have shown that the position of the magnetic field of the Earth in the Fall and Spring helps enhance the effect of space weather on Earth, and thus the aurora. However there hasn’t been any correlation related to the number of occurrence of the aurora. In other words, If you go aurora chasing around the equinoxes, you might get only a slight better show than you would ordinarily, but nothing to brag about either, unlike what many people tend to hype.
The aurora ‘season’ is only connected to your destination’s latitude
It’s not only a question of when, but also a question of where. The aurora season is directly connected to where you are located in the world. While lower latitudes (generally between 45-50 and 60-65 degrees North or South) get a longer season throughout the year, they also get fewer displays because they need the space weather to increase considerably for the aurora to be seen that far from the poles. If you are located at higher latitudes (>60-65 degrees N or S), your chances of seeing the lights tremendously improve because high latitude auroras usually ignite easily, without much input from the Sun. However the closer to the pole you get, the fewer days in the year where you can view the Green lady you get. At the aurora borealis observatory, we get tons of aurora displays, but we can only view them from the end of August till the beginning of April. Outside of that time, the midnight sun and daytime wash out the aurora and it’s impossible to see it.
The ‘best’ time can only be defined according to your preference
Once you get information about the place you want to chase the lights at (latitude, season…), the ‘best’ time can also depend on local conditions and your own tastes. Indeed, some areas have better weather during a certain season. At the observatory, weather conditions are hard to predict in advance but we do have a microclimate, which gives us better certainty to see the lights equally throughout the September-April season. With that being said, you need to also think and plan what environment you want to see the lights in. Some people might also want to do other activities and enjoy the location in another way, so it’s totally up to your tastes. At the observatory, we usually divide the season into three main periods:
We open the resort after summer holidays in late August. However August and September are months to enjoy the Northern Lights. Combined with stunning sunset colors on the horizon. In addition, this period until December is “autumnal” months. As a result, no snow. Above all: This is a fantastic period, first of all characterized by a lot of northern lights.
December to March:
December to mid-March is usually the time when we have snow at the aurora borealis observatory. The period is colder and when you have a lot of snow, however the landscape is usually all white and pretty. With a lot of snow and cold weather, you can get ready to experience the winter wonderland. Enjoy your Aurora Borealis holiday during snowy months.
March to Mid-April
Finally we return to the period with Northern Lights, on top of fantastic sunset colors on the horizon. The period is characterized by cold weather but much brighter days, due to the fact that polar nights is over. As a result, we are probably fully booked 6 months prior.