If catching the Northern Lights is still at the top of your bucket list, we have good news and bad news. First, the bad: 2019 is not going to be a year of high intensity for the famed phenomenon. The good news, however, is this year will be more predictable than average for spotting them.
The science behind the lights is straightforward. The sun rotates through an 11-year cycle of activity that includes three to four years of solar maximum (high intensity), followed by two years of transition (a mix of high and low intensity), then up to four years of solar minimum (low intensity). At the moment, we’re approaching solar minimum. This year, the brilliant, short-lived bursts for which the Northern Lights are best known will be few.
But, 2019 will be a good year for a predictable solar phenomenon that contributes to the Aurora Borealis: Coronal holes. Rodney Viereck from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told Lonely Planet these can last for months. He goes on:
“As the sun rotates every 27 days, we can get the blast of high-speed solar wind, much like someone spinning around holding a garden hose and spraying you every time they spin around. So for traveling to see the aurora, there is the added benefit of more predictability during solar minimum than during solar max. And if there was good aurora 27 days ago, then there is a good chance there will be aurora today – and then again 27 days from now.”
Spotting the lights requires clear northern skies, decent solar activity, and patience. It’s no surprise then that the best locations to witness them are in the extreme north. Here are our picks for the best places to experience the Northern Lights in 2019:
Iceland is an obvious choice because the views of what’s on the ground are just as eye-popping as those overhead. Photographing the Northern Lights over an otherworldly landscape of volcanoes and Instagram-worthy waterfalls is a bucket-list-worthy adventure unto itself. Grab your rental car in the capital Reykjavik before heading out on the famous Ring Road. Travel far enough, and you’ll find plenty of solitude with clear skies and unobstructed views to the north. Don’t forget to pack a bottle of Brennivín to celebrate when the lights finally make their appearance.
Like Iceland, anywhere in Scandinavia is a solid bet for catching the Northern Lights. Norway — its northernmost regions, in particular — boasts all the right conditions and plenty of adventure opportunities to boot. Arctic cruises of the Svalbard archipelago, for example, not only take visitors through “the polar bear capital of the world,” but the annual season of 24-hour darkness is ideal for aurora hunters. For something more low-key, travelers can tuck into their own private island at a place like Arctic Hideaway and watch the light display from the comfort of their own bed.
For adventurous, outdoor-loving travelers, Finland is a bucket-list-worthy destination for a host of reasons. It boasts 40 stunning national parks, a fascinating history of design, and it’s also the “official” home of Santa Claus (seriously). Head to Finnish Lapland, where the high latitude, near-zero light pollution, crystal clear skies, and the opening of several new hotels make it a great base of operations for any Aurora-spotting expedition.
If you’re looking for a truly memorable Northern Lights experience — one that takes you far, far away from it all — head to Greenland. The world’s largest island is among the most sparsely inhabited in the world with no conventional pollution, light pollution, and little civilization. The west coast “city” (we use that term liberally) of Ilulissat is home to just 5,000 people. By day, travelers will find plenty of adventurous activities from ice caving to Arctic kayaking to dogsledding. After dark, it’s the ideal location to watch the Aurora.
It’s one thing to witness the Northern Lights from ground level; it’s another matter entirely to experience them at “eye-level.” New for 2019, Canadian travel provider Consulta Meta is offering a unique Aurora | 360 Experience: A private flight designed to provide just 80 travelers with unprecedented views of the lights. The chartered 737 will take off from the Yukon Territory, then climb to 36,000 feet inside the Aurora Oval. If the expert predictions are right, passengers should be able to glimpse the lights from high above the clouds.
To plan your own trip, check out NOAA’s tips on viewing the Aurora which details how to find the ideal destination.
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