From turtles gliding above the Great Barrier Reef, wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti to cherry trees blossoming in Japan, when it comes to witnessing the raw beauty of our natural world, and experiencing moments that fill you with wonder, spotting the Northern Lights tops the bucket lists of travellers.
It seems that 2024 is the year to see them: according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, solar activity is expected to strengthen this year, which could mean more frequent occurrences of the lights - and possibly the best displays in over 20 years according to National Geographic.
So, what do you need to know about this natural phenomenon? Here’s the low down, plus some real-life tips from travellers who’ve seen this natural phenomenon.
What are the Northern Lights?
According to travel management company, Insight Vacations, the Northern Lights also known as auroras occur when solar storms emit large clouds of electrically charged particles which travel millions of kilometres, some of them colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field.
“These particles slam into atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere and heat them up, causing them to glow, flicker and spiral across the sky,” said the travel management company.
Why are they different colours?
Red, green, yellow, blue, pink or violet – the lights can feature in many hues, due to the different gases giving off different colours when they’re heated.
The green we see in the aurora is characteristic of oxygen, for example, while purple, blue or pink are caused by nitrogen.
Beyond the science of it, it’s wonderful to simply soak up the wonder of the moment, like Jalpa Thanky from the Netherlands did when she visited Norway over a decade ago.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s 100% natural as you see those colourful and mesmerising lights dancing across the dark sky,” she said.
Where can you see them?
Some of the best places to see the Northern Lights include Siberia, Scandinavia, Greenland and Northern Canada.
While they’ve also been spotted in the UK, the trick is to get far away from any places with light pollution.
Maz Duffet, from South Africa, saw the lights in Norway when she visited in early 2023 and said that she didn’t realise initially that one is, in a sense, hunting for the lights.
“For this reason, I’d recommend going with a guide, because they know exactly what to look for and when,” Duffet advised.
Enjoy other memorable activities
If you’re heading to these exquisite natural areas, it may be worth adding other experiences to your trip.
“I highly recommend also doing things like husky sledding and a reindeer feeding tour in Norway,” said Duffet.
From hiking to thundering waterfalls, to connecting with the indigenous Sami community, to visiting a geothermal bakery, there’s so much you can do to make this the trip of a lifetime.
Trafalgar Tours, Insight Vacations and Contiki offer packages to either Scandinavia or Iceland, where you can do all of this and more while being led by local specialists.
Feel the anticipation
Another traveller, Adam Richmond, from England, saw the lights on a recent trip to Lapland and says that the anticipation is half of the fun.
“You set out on a journey to maybe see the lights but remember that you’re at the whim of Mother Nature,” he said.
If you’re lucky, you could stop in the middle of a snow-covered lake, surrounded by absolute silence, and begin to see a subtle flicker of colour which builds as you look at it.
“You may want to take photos to capture the moment, but you could also be too transfixed by the majesty of the lights painting themselves across the canvas of the sky,” said Richmond.
Ultimately, witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime event is something that’s hard to describe if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, but hopefully these insights help paint a picture.
“It’s truly breathtaking and something we will all remember forever,” said Richmond.