A northern spectacular in 2012?

An aurora expert explains why this year should be an ideal time to see the Northern Lights, and narrows down the top viewing destinations.

Aurora expert Mike Kosch explains why this year should be an ideal time to see the Northern Lights, and narrows down the top viewing destinations.

What are the Northern Lights?
Auroras are caused by charged particles getting trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field lines, which come out of the top of the North and the South Poles. The light we see is particles blown from the sun bashing into the atmosphere and energising the oxygen and nitrogen that is present. The green and red colours are oxygen, while the blue colours are essentially nitrogen.

Why will 2012 be a good year to see the aurora?
The sun has a cycle around 12 years long, during which the number of sunspots – dark areas indicating intense magnetic activity – go up and down. More sunspots mean more particles being ejected and trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field, and thus more aurora activity. Solar maximum – when the number of sunspots is at its peak – is predicted to be in the next couple of years, which means we are in a very good position to be viewing auroras.

Where’s the best place in the north to see auroras?
The “auroral oval” is a ring-shaped region around 70 degrees latitude north, where auroras occur virtually on a daily basis, and includes Tromsø in Norway, Kiruna in Sweden and Rovaniemi in Finland. Canada and Alaska are also good. It is possible to see the aurora in the UK too: the further north, the better. The more exciting auroras are seen in higher latitudes, where the structures and colours are more beautiful. In the UK, they are likely to be diffuse, uniform glows on the northern horizon.

How can you know when there is auroral activity?
Auroras make no sound, so unless you’re alert, you’ll miss them. In 2003 there was a magnetic storm, one of the largest ever. Most of Europe would have seen it had they looked. We set up AuroraWatch, so people can be alerted to magnetic activity.

Three places to see the Northern Lights

Tromsø, Norway
Norway’s most northerly city enjoys an energetic social scene, and is one of the best places in the world to see auroras, with a Northern Lights festival each January.
Stay: Clarion Hotel Bryggen is by the harbour, and has a rooftop whirlpool bath, too (from £120).
How to get there: Fly to Tromsø from Manchester and Heathrow, via Oslo (from £240)

Lunan Bay, Scotland
With the sun in a more active phase, it’s increasingly likely that northeast Scotland, including beautiful Lunan Bay just north of Dundee, will see Northern Lights displays.
Stay: The food at Gordon’s is highly rated, as are the five rooms. Lunan beach is two miles away (£90)
How to get there:  Nearby Montrose is nearly two hours by train from Edinburgh (from £12).

Kiruna, Sweden
A history of mining makes Kiruna more gritty than pretty, but its northerly position means it’s a great place to see auroras. The Jukkasjärvi Ice Hotel is a few miles away.
Stay: Hotel Vinterpalatset has pretty rooms, and the game breakfasts verge on the decadent (from £95).
How to get there: Fly to Kiruna from Heathrow and Edinburgh via Stockholm (from £250).

Professor Mike Kosch is an experimental space scientist at the University of Lancaster.

This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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