Where and when to go
The lights are formed from fast-moving, electrically charged particles that emanate from the sun. These are driven towards the poles by the Earth’s magnetic field – their varying colours are a result of the different gases in the upper atmosphere. In the northern hemisphere they are known as the aurora borealis and hang above the planet in an oval-shaped halo. The lights also have their southern counterpart, the aurora australis, but the principal audience for this is penguins.
To see the celestial disco in its full glory, you will have to head north towards the Arctic, above latitude 60 degrees at the least. The snowy wilds of Canada and Alaska are fine viewing spots, but for most of us it is more affordable, and convenient, to fly to Iceland or northern Scandinavia, commonly known as Lapland. Here it is possible to see the lights from late September to early April, with October to November and February to March considered optimum periods.
The hours of darkness increase the farther north you travel, and while the aurora can be sighted at any moment, 9pm to 2am tends to be prime viewing time. It’s surprising how often the lights reveal themselves just as dinner is served, and many hotels offer an aurora alarm service if you don’t want to stay up waiting.
Where you go will depend on your budget and the time available, but a more crucial decision is what else you want to do when you’re not standing outside in sub-zero temperatures staring up at the night sky with fingers crossed.
It’s important not to become obsessed with the single goal of beholding the aurora, but to see this as just one of many thrills of a winter holiday to the Arctic. Sparkling white landscapes, fairy-tale ice hotels, romantic husky-sled rides, the hi-tech-meets-frontier lifestyle of the indigenous peoples, cool city breaks – these are reasons enough to go.
With luck you will also see the heavens ablaze with a silky, swirling light, but this can never be...