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Norway or Iceland for Best Northern Lights?

Northern Lights viewing is on our "Bucket List." Any views on Norway versus Iceland for fellow travelers with experience in one or the other or both?
Thanks,
Rob

Posted by
544 posts

The trouble with planning a trip for the northern lights is clouds.

Maybe plan a trip to both, that way you're doubling your chance of a good viewing.

Posted by
5 posts

We considered that but here's the rub: The full plan is a couple of days in Oslo, then the Northern Lights, then the ferry to St. Petersburg for a few days and then the train to Moscow. Adding Iceland is over budget for both time and money. Someone suggested a cruise ship for the Northern Lights which sails from Norway up near the Arctic Circle. The comfort of a warm cabin and then an announcement when to come on deck when the lights become visible. Any thoughts on that?

Thanks.

Rob

Posted by
544 posts

I think finding a tour company that takes you inland somewhere, maybe in Finland, where there would be a higher chance of clear nights would be a better bet. There are more cloudy days on the coast and at sea than inland.

This is just a guess though. Also I am not a fan of boats in winter seas which also biases my opinion.

Posted by
5648 posts

Hi Rob - we visited Iceland for a week in April 2015, and have had to scrap our plans for a Norway trip in April 2016, so Norway remains on our wish list.

As for Iceland last April, there are nightly forecasts for whether the Northern Lights will be active or subtle, as well as for the likelihood of cloud cover versus clear skies. So either one could have a factor in viewability, but as noted above, if it's overcast, you won't see anything, no matter how spectacular the light show is above the clouds.

We had overcast skies pretty much every night. We'd signed up for a "Warm Baths and Cool Skies" hot springs soak/Northern Lights viewing package, and it was announced early-on as we boarded the tour bus that the lights would likely not be viewable that night from the interior of the country.

However, we spoke with some folks one night who had gone on the Elding Tours boat (they run whale watching tours during the day, and Northern Lights watch parties at night), and they saw the Lights, while other people who'd gone on a land-based tour didn't. While weather can vary and even the best prediction is only a guesstimate, we surmised that someone out on the water, away from the land mass, might have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights, and if we were to go again, we'd sign up for Elding's tour. We'd taken their whale watching boat on our first day, and spotted a Minke Whale. On their Northern Lights boat, they include hot chocolate, so passenger warmth and comfort are part of the package. Good luck and happy travels!

Posted by
12040 posts

The best area of the world to view the lights is northern Alaska and Canada, for the reasons given above- the region is relatively arid, so the chances of a clear skies and a solar storm coinciding with a visit are higher.

But you should be aware of the odds. I once spent 6 weeks during the winter in the Alaska interior. Even making multiple attempts in the best possible conditions, I only saw the lights twice. Unlike the waxing and waning of the moon, the northern lights depend on random solar storms, which are only predictable in the short term. So, if you simply allot a few random nights, you likely won't see anything.

Posted by
5648 posts

I meant to come back and add another thought, but Tom kind-of beat me to it. While researching a potential Alaska trip (which would be costly), I read that, in particular, Fairbanks is known for a better-than-average incidence of Northern Lights viewability. As you no doubt are aware, during the late spring and summer, the long days make viewing in the Northern Hemisphere impossible, so the prime viewing time in the northern latitudes is sometime after mid-September until mid-April.

Posted by
13213 posts

Is going to Alaska more expensive than going to Norway? I don't see how that can be. It may not be as exotic as a foreign country, but it can be fun if you enjoy things like Nordic skiing. And you don't even have to go in the dead of winter. People in our travel group saw them from Denali NP in late August in 2012 and again in 2015. And there were reports of some nice displays in late September.

Posted by
3336 posts

In Norway, most people go up to Tromso to view the northern lights. There is a whole tourist industry built around this! That said, like others have mentioned, you need to be lucky to get clear skies along with a good forecast for solar activity. To have a good chance of seeing anything you need to devote several days to a week to increase your chances of seeing something. There are quite a few phone apps that will update you on solar storm activity and weather so that you can predict your chances before you arrive.

Posted by
15051 posts

You want to go in spring or autumn, when there are some hours of darkness. The farther north you go, the long the days are.

Fairbanks - mid-April, 15.25 hrs of daylight, another 2.25 hrs of twilight (civil), so you have 6.5 hours of night time. Mid-September is better, with 13 hrs of daylight and less than 2 hrs of twilight. Reyjavik - nearly the same.

Posted by
5 posts

Chani:

I thought that the Northern Lights were best viewed in the winter months, as far north as possible, so that the lights could better be seen? Are you saying that the longer days in the Spring are better for viewing or am I misreading that?

Rob

Posted by
5648 posts

Hi Rob - not to jump in front of Chani, who can still reply to your direct question, but my understanding is that Darker is Better, so the longer the duration of nighttime skies, and the earlier it gets dark on a given evening, the better your opportunities for seeing Northern Lights. Of course, all the other factors have to be favorable, as well (solar activity to activate the Earth's magnetic field, plus clear skies, and - ideally - away from city lights). Early spring and late fall are better than summer, but winter has the longest nights.

Our B&B host in Shetland, Scotland (which is farther north than some parts of Norway, but still well south of the Arctic Circle) told us she often saw the Northern Lights, at the right time of year. Once the display covered the entire sky, with lots of reds, and lasted all night. Even the locals who were used to seeing the Northern Lights pulled out lawn chairs and bottles of wine, and stayed up all night to watch the phenomenon.

Posted by
15051 posts

Oh, I'm sure winter is better for the Northern Lights, but who wants to be there then? If you want to do other sightseeing, you have very short days and the likelihood of lousy weather (at least it would be for me).

Posted by
5789 posts

Re: ...but who wants to be there then?

Winter can be the peaceful season not overrun by tourists. And winter is the active season if you are a skier. We're heading for Finland in February but seeing the northern lights would be a bonus, not our reason to travel during the heart of winter.

Posted by
5 posts

As to the weather, please understand, I live in South Florida were we freeze when the wind-chill factor hits 68.

Posted by
28 posts

Hi,

We spent three weeks in Iceland this summer, late August to Middle September and we saw the lights 4 times! It was spectacular! One night was party cloudy, but some holes opened up in the clouds and we still saw them. It's amazing, Iceland is unbelievable! We have been 3 times, first time December 2013, beautiful dark clear skies, no lights... Two nights after we had left, they had a great show. Don't expect it, watch the forecast, and cross your fingers and toes! September to March is optimal viewing time. We saw them the first time in August, all the other 3 nights were in September. It's a roll of the dice, but the last two years have seen very strong solar activity!

We also went to Finland in Feb 2011 and didn't get anything.

Good luck hunting the lights! Worth it no matter how long it takes!

Christina