Last updated: 05:00 AM ET, Tue October 27 2015

Where to See the Northern Lights in 2016

Destination & Tourism | Janeen Christoff | October 27, 2015

Where to See the Northern Lights in 2016

PHOTO: Northern Lights in Iceland. (Courtesy Iceland Tourism)

If you haven’t heard, the northern lights, or aurora borealis, are experiencing a period of heightened activity known as the solar maximum. This means that the lights are viewable from locations south of the main auroral occurrence zone. Although the lights reached their peak period of activity in 2012/2013, according to the University of Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, which forecasts the aurora borealis, the maximum will stay at a heightened level for four or five years. So, those heading toward the arctic through 2016 or 2017 will have a greater chance of seeing the lights.

To see the northern lights during the “solar max,” you should keep the following in mind, according to the university

The best time of year to visit is during the early springtime when the probability for clear skies is twice as likely as in the fall. The ideal time is the two weeks around the new moon in March, but viewing is good from early January to late April.

The best time of day for viewing the northern lights is between the evening and morning civil twilights (when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon) on a clear or partly cloudy night. The lights are at their most intense between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Viewing is also best with little or no moonlight.

The Geophysical Institute operates the Aurora Forecast, where visitors can check to see solar activity for the time period when they will be traveling to one of the arctic regions.

Where should you go to see the northern lights? Here are some of the best and easiest-to-reach destinations for travelers.

Churchill, Manitoba

Experts have long said that the edge of the Hudson Bay is one of the best spots to catch the phenomenon. Watch the multicolor display dance across the arctic skies in Churchill, Manitoba, which is reachable by Via Rail train from Winnipeg. The Winnipeg-Churchill train travels more than 1,000 miles roundtrip on a two-day journey through the vast subarctic region. In addition to the Northern Lights, you can get up close to polar bears, which are a well-known attraction in the destination.

Reykjavik, Iceland

The season for the aurora borealis in Iceland is approximately from October to March. The best viewing is when solar activity is at its peak, but the lights can be viewed from Reykjavik by just finding a place that provides an abundance of darkness, so it’s as easy as going for a walk or jumping in the car for a ride during the hours that they are viewable. That being said, there are many tour operators that offer tours to view the northern lights and cruise ships also leave from Reykjavik.

Fairbanks, Alaska

Visitors to Fairbanks have a good chance of seeing the northern lights, especially if they dedicate a week in pursuit of the phenomenon. The Geophysical Institute advises visitors to travel to a place up on a hill to have the best view of the horizon. The institute also noted that, during solar activity maximum years, most auroral storms start south of Fairbanks. During the solar activity minimum years, the auroral storms start north of Fairbanks and occur in the midnight hours.

Recommended sites around Fairbanks include Chena Lakes Recreation Area; Ester, Wickersham, and Murphy Domes; Haystack Mountain; turnouts along the Elliot, Steese, and Parks Highways; and Cleary Summit.

While Fairbanks is a good location and probably the most convenient from a lodging perspective, other places that have a high frequency of auroral occurrences are Bettles, Coldfoot, Wiseman, Fort Yukon, Prudhoe and Point Barrow.

Northern Lights Cruise

Another easy way to see the northern lights and to experience the Arctic is to travel with Hurtigruten on its Arctic Climate Voyage, a unique journey on climate change that travels from Reykjavik to Spitsbergen, Norway. Not only do you have the opportunity to see the northern lights, but the voyage travels to some of the most isolated spots on earth, including Jan Mayen, home to the northernmost active volcano, Beerenberg. Guests also visit the northernmost permanently populated communities in the world, Ny-Alesund. 

For more information on Alaska, Iceland, Canada

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