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When Is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights?

I got asked this question quite often: When is the best time to see the northern lights?

Sometimes people mean the best time of the year and sometimes they want to know what’s the best time during the day. Let me give my answer to both questions.

When is the best time of the year to see the Aurora Borealis?

The northern lights can be seen roughly from from late August to mid April. That’s the Aurora Season. Very far north from the Arctic Circle the season is actually a little shorter than that. And south from the Arctic Circle the season is a little longer. Where I live, I can see the northern lights from early August to late April.

Why is there a season for the lights? During the summer the night sky up in the north is simply too bright throughout the night for the northern lights to be visible, even if they are active.

So, the more hours of darkness, the bigger chance then, right? That means April and August are not the ideal aurora watching months. Is then December and January the best months to see the northern lights? No, that is not the case either, although they are the months with most darkness.

I have been out hundreds of times watching the aurora borealis, and I can draw some conclusions from the statistics I keep. It seems like October and March have more auroral activity than other months.

This is for two reasons. First, the northern lights are more active close to the autumn and spring Equinoxes. It has something to do with the axis of the Earth. The process is very complex.

The difference is not huge but if you want to optimize your chances you should make your trip during those months. (But any period during the aurora season works, so don’t worry too much about the timing.)

Second reason is weather. November and December is often very cloudy. Clouds are always hiding the northern lights activity in the sky. A time with less cloudiness is desirable, which is why March is even better than October.

So what’s the best time of the year to see the northern lights?

I would say March. It has high auroral activity and less risk of cloudy weather. March is also not as cold as January and February which makes it the perfect month to see the northern lights. Some of my most awesome aurora photos were taken in March.

Note that there are always exceptions. Last year March was colder than both January and February, but we’re talking statistics here.

When is the best time of the day to see the northern lights?

I often get asked: “At what time will the northern lights appear?” The answer to that is always ”I don’t know”, because there is really no way of knowing.

Even with forecasts it’s impossible to predict the exact time when it will happen. That’s why I always say that if you really want to see the northern lights you should go out when it gets dark and be prepared to stay out for hours. If you have patience your chances will rise significantly.

However, statistically the northern lights seem more often to be active close to the darkest point of the night. That means close to 12 PM during normal time, or close to 1 AM if we have summer time (early autumn or late spring).

A large amount of my aurora photos are taken around the midnight hours or just before midnight. So even if there might be auroral activity already at 7 PM or as late as 6 AM the midnight hours seem most often to be the peaking hours.

Here are some photos taken close to midnight when the auroral activity has gone through the roof.

Learn to read the Aurora Forecasts

To have optimal chances of seeing the northern lights you should use an aurora app or go to an aurora forecast website. I use SpaceWeatherLive both on computer and as an app in my phone.

But the different indexes in aurora apps may be difficult to understand at first. Many people just look at the Kp index but that is not a good way to do it and it might even make you miss the whole show.

HPI (Hemispheric Power) and Bz are better to keep your eyes on. When HPI rises to 40 or 50 the chances are good. Bz should point south (negative figures) for a fair chance of the northern lights appearing.

Good luck with Aurora spotting! And if you run into clouds, please download this free checklist to optimize your chanses to see the magical dance of the northern lights.

This photo was taken close to the ideal time according to what I have said above. A few minutes after midnight in the end of February. Click the picture to read the story about that night, a night I will remember for a very long time.

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