Here’s some expert advice for improving your odds of seeing the don’t-miss spectacle.
Spotting the chartreuse swirls and violet spires of the northern lights is a dream experience for many travelers, but the past few years have been a relatively uneventful time for aurora spotters. Because the phenomenon is a by-product of the solar wind, the magnitude of those colorful ribbons waxes and wanes in reaction to the sun’s 11-year cycles.
After reaching what scientists call solar minimum in December 2019, the cycle is back on the upswing as it builds toward the next solar maximum in around 2025. “The next few years may be prime time for aurora watchers,” said John Barentine, formerly the director of conservation for the International Dark-Sky Association, an advocacy group. Here’s how to boost your odds of seeing the magic in person.
Crunch the Numbers
The key figure that aurora hunters swear by is the planetary K-index, a holistic indicator of northern-lights activity and visibility. Many organizations, including the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, track the index, which follows a zero-to-nine scale. A subdued level three signifies that aurora sightings are only likely near the Arctic Circle, in places such as Iceland.
But should the number tick above five, lights could dance as far south as northern Wisconsin and North Dakota — close enough for a last-minute road trip. Apps like My Aurora Forecast and SpaceWeatherLive go further, offering K-index predictions, location-based viewing probabilities, and real-time maps.
Seek Suitable Skies
The less light pollution, the brighter the show. Resources like the IDA’s dark-sky map can help do-it-yourself spotters pin down prime viewing locations. Travelers can also bank on an inky atmosphere by booking at hotels built specifically for northern-lights chasers.
On Iceland’s Ring Road, Hotel Rangá features an on-site observatory and can place wake-up calls to guests whenever the phenomenon appears. At Greenland’s Hotel Arctic, isolated igloos open May through October promise jaw-dropping aurora displays above the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Fresh Coast Cabins is open from May through November. It has accommodations with Lake Superior views, and frequent aurora sightings, too.
While the human eye takes up to 30 minutes to adjust to the dark, newer smartphones like the iPhone 14 Pro Max and the Google Pixel 7 Pro — not to mention DSLR and mirrorless cameras — can pick up the swirls right away. On nights with high aurora potential but no immediately visible spectacle, it’s often possible to take images of the northern lights with a tripod and a long exposure setting. And capturing the experience for posterity can feel almost as magical as seeing the aurora itself.
A version of this story first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Enjoy the Show."
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