• Jan Švamberg

Best way to see the Northern Lights



How can clouds influence the visibility of the Northern Lights?

The Aurora Borealis, aka Northern Lights, is one of the most significant natural wonders in the Arctic. And visitors worldwide may now easily go to the Arctic to witness auroras for themselves due to the marvels of modern technology.

You might be curious whether the clouds have any bearing on the visibility of the Northern Lights. And this is considering the money and time necessary to travel far north for a mere viewing of the Northern Lights.

Chances of you seeing the Northern Lights

The overall chance of witnessing the Northern Lights during a vacation to Abisko that lasts four nights is approximately 83%. This is according to monitoring done over several years. Other locations that stand out include the frozen Lulea Archipelago, which has a far more consistent cloud pattern. This is due to the enormous expanse of freezing seas there.

Northern lights and the weather

The interplay of the Earth and the sun produces the phenomenon known as the Northern Lights. Before affecting the surface of the globe, solar wind, which is comprised of streams of particles, is released by the sun. The solar wind is then neutralized/deflected when it comes into touch with the magnetosphere of Earth.

Because the planet's magnetic field is formed from the North & South Poles, its magnetosphere crosses with the atmosphere in those areas. However, the magnetosphere spends most of its time in space outside the planet's atmosphere.

So, the Northern Lights are caused by a chemical reaction that may be seen from the surface when solar wind penetrates the atmosphere at certain spots.

The solar wind causes northern lights. Therefore, they are unaffected by atmospheric conditions. The visibility of the lights of the north, however, might be hindered by poor weather. The magnetosphere is responsible for creating auroras well above Earth's atmosphere. Therefore, clear skies are necessary for viewing them.


Because water particles tend to be heavy, while the upper atmosphere is thin, clouds tend to form at low altitudes. Hence, it is impossible to see the northern lights from the ground without substantial cloud cover.

So, when planning a trip to see the northern lights, keeping an eye on the forecast is vital, as cloud cover might rule out many potential viewing areas.

Even though much of eastern Canada lies on or near the Arctic Circle, the regions of Newfoundland & Quebec and the region of Nunavut are not ideal locations for a search for the Northern Lights due to frequent cloud cover.

On the contrary, western Canada & Alaska are famous for their better and clear winter weather, making them excellent tourist viewing places.

Further, some sites favour observing the northern lights at some times of the year but not others due to monthly weather fluctuations. The Norwegian city of Tromso is an excellent attraction for those seeking to view the Northern Lights. But December is not the best time to go there because of the high likelihood of cloud cover.

The temperature does not affect the northern lights, contrary to common perception. And despite popular belief, northern lights can emerge even when it's not particularly cold outside.

Since the Arctic experiences the longest darkness throughout the winter, this is the time of year when you can see the most northern lights. Also, due to Earth's axial tilt, the Arctic enjoys nearly continual daylight during the summertime, making winter the best time to watch the northern lights.

Can you see the Northern Lights through clouds?

Most nights, clouds will prevent us from seeing the Northern Lights. You can see the Northern Lights from 80 kilometres or more. This implies that clouds constantly obscure your view of the sky, acting as an opaque veil that hides the beauties above you.

Cloudy weather has hampered northern light viewings for many individuals who had planned journeys to see the phenomenon. Hence, the best guidance for you planning a trip to the far north to view the Northern Lights is preparation. Also, know the cloud cover forecast beforehand.

So, is it possible to see the Northern Lights even while there are clouds?

To answer the question:

Yes, occasionally, you can. But there has to be a little cloud cover, and the northern lights sufficiently intense.


Using Cloud Cover Forecast for Northern Light Hunting

The cloud cover would be essential for effective Northern Lights Viewing.

Since Northern Lights displays occur nearly nightly, the clouds aren't as forgiving to the aurora explorer.

Auroras typically appear between 80 to 150 kilometres above the Earth's surface, although their height can reach over a thousand kilometres.

These heights are well above the Troposphere, the layer of Earth's atmosphere where clouds often originate. They can be as low as ground level in foggy climates and as high as 7.5 km over the Arctic or Antarctic surface.

Low clouds are classified between 0 and 2 kilometres in altitude in Iceland and other countries sharing a similar latitude. In contrast, intermediate clouds are classified as those between two and four kilometres in length. And the height of high clouds varies from 3 - 8 km.

Thus, it is pretty rare to get a fully cloudless night in Iceland during the winter because of the persistent weather pattern that hovers over the country. This is why you must use a cloud cover forecast before northern light hunting.

A Cloud Cover Forecast is a prediction. They are fallible and could be proven wrong. So, if your margins are thin, this becomes much more important.

Now let’s say you have a vacation home in the south of Iceland. The cloud cover forecast predicts that entire Iceland will be covered in clouds except for a small area directly above your home. But you shouldn't be too astonished if the reality turns out somewhat different.


Thus, outside factors must sometimes be included to make sense of a cloud cover forecast.

As was mentioned, cloud cover forecasts are some of the most challenging predictions for any meteorologist. These are updated every six hours and thus are made public around three hours after they recalculate the models.

The results of the recalculations, which occur at 12:00, 18:00, 00:00, & 06:00 UTC, are released around three hours after the recalculation occurs.

The forecast has a pattern of shifting between separate iterations of the calculation, so the further ahead in time you check, the less likely it is that it will be accurate.

The best time to look for the Northern Lights

The ideal time to view the Northern Lights seems to be on clear nights at about midnight during the season of Aurora. The Aurora season begins at the end of August & continues until about halfway through April. On the other hand, if you are at a lower latitude, there's a significant solar storm. Thus, you may be able to view the northern lights even during the summertime, such as in June or July.


Studies show that increased solar activity is statistically associated with the beginning of autumn and spring. Hence, the periods of September & March are typically the most incredible times to view a vibrant display of the Aurora Borealis/ Northern lights.

Conclusion

To avoid the issue of cloud cover & bad weather, choose a viewing area for the Aurora that is well-known for having clear skies during the winter. Also, make sure to pack accordingly to deal with the possibility of snowfall & low temperatures.

Put in the effort to prepare. You can bask in your Northern Lights vacation without worrying about your safety and comfort. Thus, you may turn the event into one of your most significant and life-changing experiences.


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