For the best chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis, you need to head north, says Sarah Marshall
It tops many ‘must-see-before-you-die’ bucket lists, and this season a vast number of people will book a break in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights.
Although we’ve passed the peak of the 11-year solar cycle (measured by the number of visible sunspots causing energy to be released), there’s still an enormous amount of activity with powerful displays predicted. In the next few years, this will diminish (until a predicted peak in 2022), so it’s a case of go now rather than later.
A recent display of the Aurora Borealis as far south as Pembrokeshire in Wales earlier this month, suggests the lights will be out in full force this year. They were also spotted in northern England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, although drivers who believe they have made a sighting in Perthshire are advised to check whether their viewing coincides with a production of The Enchanted Forest in Faskally Wood near Pitlochry... those green lights are mighty powerful.
The improved chances of a sighting in Britain are due to a combined effect of a “coronal hole” near the sun’s equator, which has aligned with Earth and is sending high-speed solar winds to buffet the planet, and the time of year.
A Met Office spokesman says, “We are now in a period, lasting a few weeks where these two factors are working together to increase the chances of geomagnetic disturbances, which in turn bring with them the aurora.”
However experts say for the best views, aurora hunters will need to head much further north.
Ali McLean, of specialist travel company The Aurora Zone, says: “Such activity in the UK is rare and normally the sun is only sufficiently active to create a zone in Northern Scandinavia between approximately 66 and 69 degrees latitude where the Northern Lights appear most frequently.”
But even though outlooks are positive for the year ahead, there’s still no guarantee of witnessing the elusive display. I’ve personally clocked up a total of eight Northern Lights trips in my time, spread across the Nordic countries and Scandinavia, with a 60 per cent success rate.
There are tips and tricks to improve your chances (avoid coastal areas where cloud cover is more likely to obscure views; go in January when skies are more starry), but in reality the best advice is not to pin all your hopes on the Northern Lights.
Tour operators have recognised this fact, and are now offering a range of trips combining aurora hunting with other winter activities.
In Finland, for example, guests at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort can enjoy views of wintery landscapes on a two-hour snow tank safari (€63 per person), or you can head to the Gulf of Bothnia for a short cruise in an icebreaker (€719 per person). Stays at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort (www.kakslauttanen.fi/en/) cost from €146 per person, based on two sharing a small cabin.
Meanwhile in Sweden, aurora hunters can try their hand at ice sculpting. The Aurora Safari Camp, high up in the Arctic Circle, will be holding classes, teaching visitors basic techniques, which will allow them to create their own temporary masterpieces in the ice field. Original Travel (www.originaltravel.co.uk) offers a three-night trip to Aurora Safari Camp from £1,900 per person (two sharing) including full board accommodation, activities and flights.
In Norway, wildlife fans can combine an aurora trip with whale watching in the Vesteralen islands, where large groups of orca, humpback, fin and sperm whales gather in January.
Zoologist Mark Carwardine will be leading a four-night trip for Discover The World (www.discover-the-world.co.uk) on 26 January from £1,745 per person (including flights and full-board accommodation), where guests will have a chance to scout for whales in a boat equipped with hydrophones.
So overall then, even if the lights do refuse to put on a show, there’s still good reason to head north for a holiday this winter.