Best Guide to have a glimpse of Aurora

Part – 1; Factors necessary for clear view of Aurora

Glimpse of auroras in Alaska; Image credit: By United States Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang
(Auroras in Alaska; Image credit: By United States Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang)

 Experiencing Aurora’s dancing lights has been on almost everyone’s bucket list. These celestial lights are no less than a heavenly view, which one can cherish for their whole lives. Well, if you really are serious about it, then you must know a few things before planning for this amazing venture.

Here, we will discuss a few factors that you must take care of when planning a trip for this celestial show.

Ideal regions for observing this activity:

First let’s check in which areas this activity is predominant and why:

Remember your school-level geography class, where you learned about the five major circles of latitude that differentiate the region on the earth globe?

These circles are (starting from the north):

  1. Arctic Circle 
  2. Tropic of Cancer
  3. Equator
  4. Tropic of Capricorn
  5. Antarctic Circle
Five major circles of latitudes

Since the activity is strong near magnetic poles, our region of interest is the region around the Arctic Circle (for the Northern Lights) and the Antarctic Circle (for the Southern Lights). Since the majority of the land surface (accessible and feasible for humans) is near the north geographic pole, our focus will be on the Northern Lights.

Best countries to view Auroras
White circle is the Arctic Circle and highlighted countries are the regions nearby to this Circle

In the above image, the circled 8 countries give the best view of the Northern Lights, which are:

Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Russia, Alaska (USA), Greenland (Denmark), and Canada.

Antarctic Peninsula (Image credit: By Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica)
Antarctic Circle is marked by black dotted lines crossing through Antarctic Peninsula and Bellingshausen Sea, (Image credit: By Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica)

For southern lights, other than Antarctica, other land surfaces are quite far away, but still, the aurora australis can be experienced to the fullest in countries like Australia (Tasmania), New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile (the southernmost part).


1. Clear and dark skies:

For clear and bright Northern Lights (Aurora borealis) and Southern Lights (Aurora australis), dark and clear skies are required, due to which the appearance of these lights depends on the season as well as on climate.

We prefer longer nights, so the chances of observing the lights for a longer time increase; hence, the winter months are preferred.

Relationship of Earth's axial tilt to the tropical and polar circles; Image credit: By cmglee, NASA - Own work using:]], Public Domain,
(Relationship of Earth’s axial tilt (ε) to the tropical and polar circles; Image credit:By cmglee, NASA – Own work using:]], Public Domain,

The seasons that we experience are due to the earth’s tilt axis. During the winter season, the northern hemisphere is away from the sun and hence receives less light, even for shorter periods. On the other hand, the southern hemisphere at this time is facing towards the sun and hence receives more sunlight for longer periods, and therefore they have summer at that time. Exactly the opposite happens during the summer season for northern hemispheric regions; the southern part will have winter at that time.

2. Moonless nights:

Prefer moonless nights since the moonlight can dominate in the sky over Aurora lights, which may ruin your view. So, it is recommended to have a new moon day or no moon at that time to see the lights bright enough. However, it does not mean that having a moon will completely make Auroras go dim; you can still enjoy the Auroras while having a moon at the same time, but the activity must be strong enough so that the brightness of the aurora can outshine moonlight.

3. Away from city lights:

Find a place that is devoid of any streetlights or any lights coming from nearby terrestrial areas that may hinder the celestial lights from appearing bright enough. Try any area away from settlements (a rural area), and prefer an area that is not that mountainous to block the view. Go for a place that is plain or mountains with fewer heights and a smaller number of tall trees to eclipse the view.

4. Timing:

The best (local) time is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Active aurora happens to be around these hours, extending from late evening to early morning. However, in the morning or evening, auroras are not active enough to look appealing to your eyes.

5. Weather:

There are some factors that cannot be avoided and can’t be known prior, certainly; obviously, I am talking about weather conditions. The region of interest we discussed lies near the extreme poles, and hence extreme cold (snowy) weather exists. In such snowy areas, there are chances of snowstorms, precipitation, rainfall, snowfall, blizzards, etc. So, it is recommended to check the weather forecasts to see whether the atmosphere is devoid of such things. These can be the most annoying obstacles, as they can happen suddenly, and weather forecasts still cannot guarantee clean weather.

6. Kp Magnitude:

This is the most important factor to be considered. Aurora will be brighter when a geomagnetic field is active. The strength of this field is given by the planetary K index, or Kp. It ranges from 0 to 9.

  • When 0 ≤ Kp ≤ 2, the aurora will be far north, with less intensity and not very active.
  • When 3 ≤ Kp ≤ 5, Aurora will extend away from poles, and it will be brighter with more activity. The countries mentioned above for the Northern Lights are favourable places for these values of Kp.
  • When 6 ≤ Kp ≤ 7, Aurora will move even further away from the poles. It will be quite bright enough to be seen from the northern edges of the United States as well.
  • When 8 ≤ Kp ≤ 9, Aurora will move more towards the equator; it will be very bright and active. These create the most appealing auroras, and the auroral oval (the region where they are most active) extends further so that they are visible from the northern states of the USA.

The below images indicate the southward extension of aurora visibility as per the Kp level. It highlights the regions from which it can be observed, not where the auroras are.

How far South can Auroras be observed in Northern hemisphere
How far South can Auroras be observed in Northern hemisphere
How far North can Auroras be observed in Southern hemisphere

To check the value of Kp, you can use Northern Lights forecasts. It’s an app that tells you which day of the week, what time you will have clear skies, and when it will be cloudy. For the countries mentioned above, for the Northern Lights, what we want is Kp from 2 to 5. If it’s 1 or even higher, that usually means that the location of light or magnetic fields is not in those areas.

(In Part 2, we will give a list of places in these countries from which you can all enjoy this light show.)