Make that your New Year's resolution before it disappears.
The northern lights are nature's most dazzling light show. Also known as the aurora borealis, it's often on any traveler's bucket list. The lights appear only in the frigid cold Arctic regions from September to March, and lucky stargazers can witness its unearthly surreal colors dancing across the sky.
There's some bad news though.The northern lights are expected to appear less frequently over the next 10 years.
No, the northern lights aren’t disappearing. But with every passing year until about 2025, the chances of crossing them off your bucket list gets a bit slimmer.
The northern lights take place on an 11-year solar cycle. As we enter 2017, we're well onto the downswing of the cycle. This means fewer nights filled with the aurora borealis, an effect that will likely last until around 2025 or even 2026. You can see still the lights even in 2020, but it would much less frequent.
With each passing year, the northern lights are going to be much more difficult to see.
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Where to See the Northern Lights in 2017
After 18 hours of researching and considering more than 30 different places around the world, I've narrowed it down to the top 4 places based on where you live.
With some luck, you will see anything from an ethereal green glow on the horizon to pulsating scarlet streaks across the sky, but bear in mind that it's never a guarantee. Aurora hunting is ultimately a game of luck, and it does get frustrating going all the way to a place just for the aurora yet it doesn’t appear. Go for the activities, go for the attractions, keep yourself entertained so that you won’t be sorely disappointed with your vacation if the northern lights don’t show up.
If you are on the west coast of America...Fairbanks, Alaska
It's said that if the sky was clear every night, you'd be able to see the northern lights on 250 nights a year at Fairbanks in Alaska. I can't verify the authenticity of that statement, but one thing's for sure: Fairbanks is the single best city for Americans on the west coast to see the northern lights.
While there may be better places in Alaska and Canada to see the northern lights, in my research I found that flying and finding an accommodation in Fairbanks is far cheaper and easier than other destinations like Fort Yukon, Whitehorse, or Yellowknife.
The city has a fair bit of light pollution, so driving out or picking a hotel some miles outside the city would be helpful. In particular, the Chena Hot Springs Resort is highly recommended, located about 60 miles from downtown Fairbanks.
If you are on the east coast of America...Iceland
I don't even know where to begin describing how amazing Iceland is. Yes, it's more cloudy than the other destinations listed here, but even if you don't see the northern lights, you'd still have a fantastic trip. That's Iceland for you.
If you think of Iceland and imagine a land of frozen desolation, you may be surprised to learn that the country's name is a misnomer. Thanks to the warm waters of Gulf Stream, the climate is quite mild. In fact, the temperature is usually better in the winter compared to other northern light destinations.
What's more, being a volcanically active island, the country is littered with geothermal hot springs from where you can soak in comfort and enjoy the northern lights. The country is currently experiencing a tourism boom and of particular note, WOW Air is offering $99 flights from the United States to Iceland. It's almost a no-brainer.
If you are in Europe...Tromsø, Norway or Abisko, Sweden
Tromsø is arguably the most popular out of all the northern light cities, much due to its easy accessibility by flight and a plethora of excursions and activities you can do. Above all, it's a charming city with good restaurants and lots of Airbnb rentals.
Tromsø is also located near several different meteorological zones. So if it's cloudy in one place, there are likely to be clear skies a short drive away. If you don't want to be hunting the lights by yourself, there are a number of aurora-chasing snowmobile or bus tours that you can join.
Another inviting option is to fly to Stockholm, then take a 13-hour sleeper train to Abisko in the far north of Sweden. Cloud cover — the aurora hunter's arch enemy — shouldn't trouble you there. Mountains and favorable prevailing winds combine to create some of northern Scandinavia's most cloud-free skies. It's often claimed that the city has statistically the most nights of clear skies in Europe.
At Abisko, you can take a chairlift up to the Aurora Sky Station, which is set at nearly 3,000 feet and in an ideal spot for seeing the lights.
If you are in Asia or Australia...Pick from the above
For what it's worth, Asia is pretty big and it would depend on where exactly you are. For some countries, it's cheaper to visit Norway or Sweden; while in other countries, flying to Alaska is the better option. In many cases, the prices for all of the above destinations were comparable and it's really a toss-up.
Once again, depending on where you live, I would pick the destination with the easiest flight connections. Beyond that, just go with your interest level in each country.
What about the southern lights?
While the northern lights get all the spotlight and fame, the southern lights are equally magnificent on the opposite side of the world. Also known as the aurora australis, the southern lights also occur but are not as often observed.
To illustrate why they're observed less often, here's the auroral oval in the north, spanning across a good handful of countries and cities.
And we compare it to the auroral oval in the south...
...which pretty much covers only Antarctica. So basically, the primary audience of the southern lights is these guys here.