The Complete Guide To The Northern Lights

Harriet O'Brien looks north, and skywards, at the start of the aurora borealis season


WEIRD AND VERY WONDERFUL, BUT WHAT ARE THEY?

WEIRD AND VERY WONDERFUL, BUT WHAT ARE THEY?

For the Vikings the haunting appearance of the northern lights was an ethereal reflection of the ghosts of virgins. Many Inuit peoples interpreted the eerie sight as walrus spirits playing with human skulls. The Native American Tlingit of Alaska believed the strange sky visions were dancing spirits of the deceased. Scientific explanations are somewhat more prosaic. The weirdly moving lights, seen variously in shades of red, green, blue, violet and (slightly disappointingly) simply as glowing white smudges, are caused by great quantities of electrically charged particles blown from the sun and attracted to the earth's magnetic poles. Hence the northern hemisphere's aurora borealis - a term roughly meaning "red dawn" which was coined by the 16th-century mathematician, Galileo - and the southern hemisphere's aurora australis. The earth's magnetic field shields most of the planet from these potentially cataclysmic elements but when they collide with its gases they glow - electrons passing through the gases of a neon tube light up in much the same way. The dancing of the lights and the shapes they etch out in the sky are caused by the magnetic field buckling as it is hit by high-velocity gusts of these charged particles.

WHY THE DIFFERENT COLOURS?

These correspond to altitude and to layers of gases in the ionosphere. When the sun's particles collide with oxygen more than 300km above earth, a shade of red can sometimes be seen. The more common green lights are produced when collisions with oxygen take place at lower altitudes, between 100km and 300km above the planet. Lower still, nitrogen causes blue and reddish-violet streaks. When light intensity is weak the aurora appears as a diffusion of white cloud, looking a little like an active Milky Way.

ENOUGH OF THE SCIENCE. WHEN CAN I SEE THE LIGHTS?

Aurorae happen all year round but you need dark, clear conditions in order to see them. In addition, the best sightings are when there is a large amount of solar activity. Generally, it is held that prime seasons for viewing the northern lights are early autumn and spring. You could see them at any time between September and March but you need to be in the right place.

SO WHERE SHOULD I GO?

Cold, northern places, or Antarctica for the southern aurora. The lights occur most often and with greatest intensity in areas known as auroral zones. Seen from space, these appear as oval-shaped rings with each magnetic pole roughly in the centre. Generally, the northern oval hangs over Greenland; Arctic Scandinavia; Siberia; Alaska; Manitoba, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories in Canada. But the shape and location of the oval changes with increased solar activity and it can widen and spread fairly far south, so the northern lights are sometimes clearly visible in Scotland and even, on very rare occasions, as far down as the Mediterranean.

DO I JUST HEAD NORTH AND WAIT?

In essence that's what northern lights aficionados recommend. However, most people have neither the time, patience nor endurance of the dark and cold to linger above the Arctic Circle for an indeterminate length of time while consulting auroral forecasts (websites giving such information include www.northern-lights.no from Norway and www.gi.alaska.edu/predict from the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute). Happily, though, it has become possible to take short holidays in areas where you have a good chance of seeing the lights while also enjoying a range of activities.

SUCH AS?

Whale-watching offers good potential for aurora viewing. Travelling Naturalist (01305 267 994; www.naturalist.co.uk) has several September departures for 11-day sailing expeditions to east Greenland, with the aim of watching narwhals and taking in the northern lights. Setting out from Iceland, specialist cruise ships sail into Greenland's jaw-droppingly dramatic fjords where there is a high possibility of seeing the whales as well as polar bears. In addition, during September the aurora borealis can be intensive in this region. The price, from £2,105 per person, includes flights to and from Iceland, the cruise, all meals, lectures and shore excursions.

Wildlife Worldwide (020-8667 9158; www.wildlifeworldwide.com) provides an "Orcas and northern lights of Norway" four-day break at Tysfjord, several hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The area is rich in sea eagles as well as orcas, which arrive in great number between autumn and late winter to feed. The price, from £845 per person for departures from October to mid January, includes flights from the UK to Evenes via Oslo, transfers, accommodation at Tysfjord's Turistsenter and two-days' whale-watching.

ANY OTHER ACTIVITIES?

Ice adventure, for a start. Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk), for example, offers an eight-day Greenland Winter Experience based at the settlement of Tasilaq on Ammassalik Island and providing an insight into the life and culture of the east-coast Inuit there. Dog-sledding, ice fishing, igloo building and trips out to icebergs are part of the itinerary for departures in March, with a maximum group size of 14 people. The price (from £1,369) includes flights via Iceland to Kulusuk, helicopter transfers, three nights' B&B accommodation in Reykjavik, four nights' full-board at a comfortable guesthouse in Tasilaq, and a variety of icy activities. Although the appearance of the northern lights is by no means guaranteed, there is a likelihood that they can be seen around the location during this time.

HOW ABOUT SOMEWHERE SLIGHTLY LESS REMOTE?

Northern Scandinavia makes a reasonably convenient destination for shorter breaks. Explore Worldwide (01252 760 000; www.exploreworldwide.co.uk), for instance, has devised a five-day Arctic Exploits trip to the Saariselka area of northern Finland for groups of up 12 people. Activities here include husky and reindeer safaris, ice-fishing trips and guided snow-shoeing excursions as well as snowmobile safaris. Three nights are spent in cosy log cabins complete with individual saunas and one night in an igloo. The price is from £795 for holidays in January, February and March, and includes flights from London to Ivalo via Helsinki, accommodation with breakfast, transfers and most winter sports. In theory, the March departure offers excellent scope for seeing the northern lights, although they frequently appear in the area throughout the winter months.

Specialised Tours (01342 712785; www.specialisedtours.com) offers individual breaks to the Swedish town of Kiruna, an extraordinary Arctic centre where iron-ore mining continues alongside a winter culture of reindeer-sledding, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing. In January, Europe's largest snow festival takes place here, with ice-sculpture competitions and sled races. The town also boasts an Institute of Space Physics where you can learn more about the northern lights. Three-night breaks start at £595 per person for departures between 11 December and 16 April, including flights to Kiruna via Stockholm and B&B accommodation.

Nearby is the famous Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi. The company also arranges short winter holidays here from £895 per person inclusive of flights, transfers, B&B accommodation (one night in Stockholm, one night in icy splendour, and one night in a nearby heated cabin), snowmobile safari, one dinner at the Ice Hotel, and use of thermal clothing.

SOUNDS A BIT CHILLY...

For obvious reasons, there is no heating in the parts of the Ice Hotel that are created every year from several tons of snow and ice. But otherwise there's a high level of sophistication, with an art gallery, a chapel and an ice bar that will all melt come the spring. Guests sleep on ice beds covered with reindeer skins in rooms that may feature ice sculptures and ice furniture - depending on that season's design. Bathrooms are in a separate, heated block. Most visitors sleep just the one night on ice and then decamp to heated cabins within the complex. These include "aurora" suites with skylights so that, if you're lucky, you can tuck yourself up * in bed to watch a magnificent, natural light show. Since its official opening in 1990, the Ice Hotel has become so popular that the concept has been repeated and adapted in many other destinations. In its winter brochure, Arctic Experience (01737 214 214; www.arctic-experience.co.uk) lists no fewer than seven other places with ice accommodation - from a real Arctic igloo in western Greenland to another Ice Hotel in Québec, Canada (a little far south, possibly, for viewing the aurora borealis, although the lights are sometimes seen in the area). Among its short-break packages, the company offers a three-night trip to the Northern Cape in Finnmark in the very north of Norway, an especially good spot for catching the northern lights. One night is spent in Alta, whose amazing prehistoric rock carvings are a Unesco world heritage site; the next night is at Honningsvag after a trip to the Northern Cape with its dramatic panoramas; and the last night is in the icy glories of Alta Igloo Hotel - with, new this year, the opportunity of unwinding in outdoor tubs. The price, from £841 per person, includes flights from the UK to Alta via Oslo, accommodation on a B&B basis, transfers and one evening meal at the Alta Igloo's restaurant.

IS THERE SUCH AN OPTION AS A RELAXING ARCTIC BREAK?

A trip on Norway's Hurtigruten is an extremely comfortable way of taking in some of the most stunning scenery of northern Scandinavia. This ferry service, which ships post, fish and local passengers along the coast between Bergen and Kirkenes on the border with Russia, has also developed as a cruise with good food, neat little cabins and generous seating areas.

The ships stop frequently at small, picturesque towns where you can hop off for a walk or even a visit to local museum. Norwegian Coastal Voyages (020-8846 2666; www.norwegiancoastalvoyages.com) offers five-day winter cruises, with a good chance of seeing the northern lights en route. There's a choice of a more southerly journey between Tromso and Bergen (or vice versa) costing from £695 per person including flights from the UK via Oslo and half-board accommodation, or, new this season, a voyage from Tromso to Kirkenes and back with a winter safari around Kirkenes as part of a package. With flights and half-board accommodation the cost is from £795.

WHAT ABOUT CHRISTMAS TRIPS?

Aah, the annual search for Santa. An increasing number of companies offer trips to the "home" of the jolly, red-coated philanthropist in Lapland, with the added attraction that the aurora may be visible. But while finding Father Christmas is guaranteed, the northern lights are, of course, not a given. The region of the Sami people encompasses parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, although many tour operators concentrate their Santa packages on Finland. Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk), for instance, organises seven-night "Santa's Winter World" holidays at the Finnish resorts of Ruka, Levi and Yllas, where alpine and cross-country skiing, reindeer and husky-sledding, and snowmobiling can be combined with visits to Santa Park in Rovaniemi. Departures are from 5 December to 20 March with prices, including flights and accommodation, from £271 (self-catering) rising to £491 and more over the peak period. Activities and excursions are extra.

Among its wide range of Christmas packages to Finland, Transun (0870 444 747; www.transun.co.uk) also offers holidays in Levi and Yllas as well as around the more northerly resort of Saariselka. Bordering vast swathes of snow-clad forest, the latter settlement is some 250km above the Arctic Circle and in the "greylight" of the short winter days offers such activities as husky-sledding, snow hockey, tobogganing and snowmobiling. Accommodation is provided in Saariselka itself or at the nearby village of Kakslauttanen, where guests stay in log cabins beside a frozen lake, and where a communal bell is rung to alert residents when the northern lights appear.

December packages to this northern resort include flights from a number of UK airports, transfers, accommodation, all meals, hire of thermal suits and boots, wilderness activities, and a (productive) search for Santa. Prices start at £499 per person for four nights in a hotel at Saariselka and at £749 for four nights in a log cabin. In addition, and at extra cost, nights in an igloo or a glass igloo (offering great scope for northern lights viewing) can be arranged.

AND IF I WANT TO SEE THE LIGHTS FROM NORTH AMERICA?

Distance from the UK, and the consequent cost of air transport, result in a small, if growing, British market for North American northern lights holidays. The best areas for aurora viewing are generally held to be around Fairbanks in Alaska; Churchill on Hudson Bay, Canada; Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory; and Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories. The latter, somewhat bizarrely, has become a magnet for aurora-seeking hordes from Japan. Serious, scientific research into the aurora takes place at institutes in both Fairbanks and Churchill ( www.gi.alaska.edu and www.churchillmb.net), and there's a consumer-friendly northern lights centre at Watson Lake near Whitehorse ( www.northernlightscentre.ca).

Of the few British companies organising group tours from the UK to these northern lights regions, Explorers Eclipse (01753 681 999; www.explorers.co.uk), has a six-night trip to Alaska departing on 14 October. The package combines a tour of Anchorage, an 11-hour scenic rail journey on board the "Aurora" service to Fairbanks, and a four-night stay at the Chena Hot Springs hotel complete with swimming-pools and outdoor hot tubs. The price of £1,450 per person includes the flights from Gatwick to Anchorage; train trip; and accommodation with breakfast.

Independent trips can be arranged by a number of North American specialist tour operators. American Independence (0131 557 1555; www.ospreyholidays.com), for example, provides a five-night autumn package to Fairbanks from £909 per person inclusive of flights from the UK via Seattle, all accommodation (room only) and transfers. Among the possibilities offered by Frontier Canada (020-8776 8709; www.frontier-canada.co.uk) is a wonderful October combination of polar bears and (potential) aurora viewing around Churchill. This small town has the eccentric distinction of lying in the autumn migratory path of polar bears returning to ice floes around Hudson Bay. So, with luck, you watch these huge, lumbering beasts by day and by night head away from Churchill's street lights to see the aurora dancing over the town's surrounding tundra. The cost of a six-day package here starts at £2,246 covering flights from Winnipeg to Churchill, full-board accommodation and polar bear safaris. Transatlantic flights can be arranged at extra cost.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

To decide where to go and when, the regions' various tourist boards make a good first port of call: Norway (0906 302 2003; www.visitnorway.com); Sweden (00 800 3080 3080; www.visit-sweden.com); Finland (020-7365 2512); Greenland (00 299 34 28 20; www.greenland.com); Alaska (0905 560 0002 - a premium number; www.travelalaska.com); Canada (0906 871 5000 - also a premium number; www.travelcanada.ca or visit www.travelmanitoba.com, www.nwttravel.nt.ca, or www.touryukon.com).

The Aurora Watcher's Handbook, by Neil Davis, is published by the University of Alaska and available from its Fairbanks website www.uaf.edu/uapress, price US$20 (about £11.75), excluding postage.

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