With 25 percent of its land mass above the Arctic Circle, Norway is an excellent location for seeing the northern lights. // © 2012 Terje Rakke/Nordic Life/www.visitnorway.com
Predicting Space Weather
Clients interested in up-to-date predictions on the frequency and intensity of the northern lights can make use of several tools.
The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks maintains an easy-to read map, with predictions extending a week into the future. Clients can also receive email alerts, which are sent when high auroral activity is forecasted. www.gi.alaska.edu/auroraforecast
NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) maintains polar satellites (POES) which monitor the power of the electrons that produce an aurora in the atmosphere. www.swpc.noaa.gov/pmap
Mobile users can download NOAA’s Ovation Auroral Forecast app. This app takes data from the solar winds and provides a 30- to 60-minute forecast of when and where the aurora will occur.
'Light of the Valkyries’
Clients in or visiting Southern California can still enjoy the northern lights at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory, which presents a daily planetarium show, “Light of the Valkyries.” Set to the music of Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle,” the 26-minute show depicts how the Vikings perceived the northern lights and investigates the science behind the phenomena. www.griffithobservatory.org/lotv.html
The northern lights originate with the sun. During a solar storm, the sun emits electrically charged energy particles, called ions, which move away from the sun in a stream of plasma, called solar wind. As the ions connect with the earth’s magnetic field, some become trapped and start to glow as they interact with the earth’s ionosphere.
While this space weather causes the auroral spectacles, it can also have destructive consequences.
“Space weather can block radio communications. It can cause errors in GPS. It can knock out satellite electronics. It can introduce extra current on electric power lines,” said Dr. Rodney Viereck. “Industries affected by space weather include airlines, oil exploration, satellites, agriculture and the electric power industry."
During the age of the Vikings, it was believed that fierce Valkyrie demigoddesses were tasked with bringing the souls of slain warriors to Valhalla, the Norse Hall of the Dead. As the warrior goddesses ascended into the sky, their magical armor would radiate a flickering light, creating spectacular light shows for the mortal world below.
While scientists now know that these lights are attributed to the sun’s energy and not to magical armor, nothing has dampened our fascination with the spectacle known as the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights.
The good news is that travelers can expect to see an increased frequency of the northern lights in the coming years. Essentially, the northern lights are caused by sunspots. The sun, which cycles through an 11-year solar cycle, has entered its solar maximum period, when sunspots become significantly more common.
“The solar maximum is a period that can last for several years,” according to Dr. Rodney Viereck, director of the Space Weather Prediction Testbed at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center, in Boulder, Colo. “The peak will be sometime in the next year or so, and we anticipate more auroral activity for the next three to four years.”
While the northern lights can be spotted as far south as the lower U.S. — about once every 10 years, according to Viereck — traveling above the Arctic Circle will yield the best results.
Still, travel agents should keep in mind that there is more to booking a successful northern lights trip than just securing the right location. Agents will need to ensure that their clients have a well-rounded experience — one that includes daily activities and meals, as well as a knowledgeable local staff that can help identify which areas have the best conditions for viewing the lights.
San Jose, Calif.-based travel agent Melita Thorpe, who specializes in astronomy-themed cruises and tours, organizes a handful of northern lights trips every year with a very high success rate.
“We are chasing the lights, and actually seeing them is an amazing experience,” said Thorpe.
Here are a few suggestions about where clients can enjoy a full northern lights experience:
With nearly 25 percent of Norway’s land mass situated above the Arctic Circle, Norway is an ideal location for viewing the northern lights. Travelers can enjoy the charm of the quaint Norwegian villages situated along the Norwegian fjords, while still having plenty of dark, open spaces along uninhabited glaciers in which to enjoy optimal auroral activity.
For nearly 120 years, Hurtigruten has been transporting freight and passengers along the 1,500 miles of coastline between Bergen and Kirkenes, near the Russian border. This ferry/cruise line hybrid — a primary method of transportation throughout Northern Norway — has also become known for its annual “In Search of the Northern Lights” sailings.
“A cruise onboard one of the Hurtigruten ships not only gives clients a unique opportunity to experience this natural phenomena, but also to partake in soft adventures such as snowmobiling, dog-sledding and king crab safaris, as well as to experience Norwegian culture, food, history and people along the coast,” said Harald Hansen, public information manager for the Innovation Norway Tourism Office in New York.
“The cruise on Hurtigruten is the easiest way to enjoy the northern lights,” she said. “Hurtigruten has some of the most beautiful itineraries in the world. It has cruises for all seasons but, in the winter, the extra snow activities are fun and different.”
Among the more popular shore excursions is a snowmobile ride between the ports of Kjollefjord and Mehamn, organized by Arctic Coast AS. The excursion is best experienced on Hurtigruten’s southbound cruises, when the snowmobiles crisscross the glacier in the middle of the night, and guides make stops at optimal viewing locations. When the snowmobiles turn off their lights, travelers are pitched into extreme darkness, lit only by the stars, moon and northern lights.
Arctic Coast AS can also help travel agents organize multi-day snowmobile excursions for their clients. Hurtigruten’s ships sail daily so, with advance planning, passengers can disembark and enjoy local programs such as deep-sea fishing, adventure camping or skiing before rejoining another Hurtigruten ship.
Hurtigruten’s southbound cruises originate in the northern city of Kirkenes, where the company offers plenty of add-on programs for travelers hunting the lights, as well as for those interested in exploring local culture.
Clients should plan to spend at least two nights in Kirkenes before embarking on a Hurtigruten sailing. They can spend a night in the Kirkenes Snowhotel, whose season starts Dec. 20 this year. The Kirkenes Snowhotel — as well as Hurtigruten — offers a number of adjunct activities, such as husky trips, ice-fishing and fishing for King Crab on a remote glacier, which is a favorite with visitors.
There’s no shame for clients who would rather not bundle up for the night in sub-zero conditions, and the nearby Thon Hotel offers lodging with incredible fjord-front views. The hotel provides a wake-up service in the case of auroral sightings, and it is a jumping-off point for most of the town’s adventure programs. Its location near Hurtigruten’s dock makes it a favorite choice for Kirkenes visitors.
Viereck — a Fairbanks, Alaska, native — thinks his hometown is a good place for viewing the northern lights due to its northern latitude and because the area is often clear in winter. Amy Geiger of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau agreed.
“Fairbanks’ position under the Auroral Oval — a ring-shaped region around the North Pole — makes it one of the best places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis,” said Geiger. “Our location offers a great balance of clear nights, occurrence frequency and activity that draws people from all over the world. These beautiful lights can be seen from mid-August to April, with the best displays happening in the late evening to the early hours of the morning.”
From Fairbanks, the Northern Alaska Tour Company offers a range of adventures for those interested in seeing the northern lights. The company’s three-night Alaska’s Aurora Adventures program takes visitors on an exploration of Alaska’s history and brings travelers to the remote wilderness of Coldfoot, considered one of the best aurora-viewing locations.
Another popular option is a stay at the Chena Hot Springs, located approximately 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks. The resort offers aurora wake-up calls and its natural hot springs are a great way to spend a winter day. The lodge features an “auroriom,” a log cabin with large plate-glass windows facing northeast. Sitting high on a hill overlooking the resort and outdoor rock lake, it provides optimal views, 24 hours a day. A favorite visitor activity is the Snow Coach Aurora Viewing Tour, which heads to the top of a 2,600-foot ridge and is great for northern lights viewing.
At the Aurora Borealis Lodge, located 20 miles north of Fairbanks, every guestroom comes with two large north-facing windows perfect for in-room viewing of the aurora.
The Alaska Railroad makes getting to Fairbanks easy, with the added bonus of unveiling Alaska’s breathtaking scenery along the way. The Aurora Winter Train package includes a one-night stay in Anchorage, rail transportation to Fairbanks, two nights in Fairbanks, flightseeing north of the Arctic Circle and a return flight to Anchorage.
Another prime location within the Aurora Oval is the Manitoba town of Churchill, Canada.
“Churchill lies directly beneath the Auroral Oval in the Northern Hemisphere. With auroral activity occurring on more than 300 nights a year, Churchill offers unique access to this dazzling light show in the Arctic sky,” said Julia Adams of Travel Manitoba.
A popular program is the Northern Lights and Winter Nights package offered by Frontiers North Adventures. The seven-night program, which originates in Winnipeg, includes nightly trips on the tundra, with a special outing in the company’s custom-built Tundra Buggy, an all-terrain vehicle built specifically for wildlife viewing.
The independent, nonprofit Churchill Northern Studies Centre operates the Winter Skies: Aurora and Astronomy in Churchill program that includes evening talks by an astronomer followed by northern lights viewing from the center’s enclosed, domed viewing lounge.
Canada rail provider Via Rail has a route that connects the 1,000-mile journey between Winnipeg and Churchill. One-way, Sleeper Class fares for the two-day journey start at $469 per person. Clients can book a roundtrip fare, but most opt to take the train to Churchill and take a return flight back to Winnipeg.
No matter where your clients choose to go, Thorpe’s advice to travel agents considering booking a northern lights tour is an emphatic “Just do it.”