insights from the ultimate cruising team

The Northern Lights: What Causes Them & Where To See Them

Aurora borealis – also known as the Northern Lights …This one heads up many a bucket list and little wonder! Mystical, beautiful and, for many, spiritual, the Northern Lights are a sight to behold.

What causes the aurora borealis? In a very basic explanation, particles on the solar wind interact with those in Earth’s atmosphere. The reason why there are different colours is that our atmosphere is made up of many different compounds like oxygen and nitrogen. When the charged particles that come from the sun hit the atoms and molecules of Earth’s atmosphere, they excite the atoms, giving off light.


Most often, you’ll see pink, green, yellow, blue, violet and occasionally orange or white in the aurora borealis, depending on whether the particles are interacting with oxygen or nitrogen.

How bright and frequent the lights are depends on activity on the sun’s surface – hence some years you will get a spectacular display and others not so much. Solar activity goes in waves so at its maximum, you’ll see much more spectacular lights, whereas during its decline, they will be slightly less. This 'wave' last 11 years, so gives you plenty of time to plan!

However, that doesn’t mean for the years in between that you won’t see anything. It’s a gradual descent into the quieter phase, and sometimes even at the minimum you can sometimes see the lights. It’s nature though, so sightings can never be guaranteed. If you get a lot of cloud, you won’t see the lights even if it’s at the maximum. Ideally you want a clear night sky at the peak of the sun’s cycle…and lots of good luck!

So where’s the best place to see the northern lights when cruising? First, you’ve got to wrap up warm and head into the Arctic circle. For optimal viewing, you need to be out of the main city centres where the sky is darkest which is why cruising is a great option. You have a choice of viewing spots within the Arctic circle:

  • Norway – Norway definitely tops the list for Northern Lights cruises. Tromsø and Svalbard are two favourites, being pretty much as far north as you can get. Once the long summer days are gone, the Northern Lights are out in force. Alta is another good spot for viewing.
  • Greenland/Iceland – You can see the Lights from most areas in Greenland and Iceland. In Greenland, it’s easier to get to the southern and eastern parts. Some expedition voyages will venture as far north as Ittoqqortoormiit, near the world’s largest national park where you can see polar bears, walruses, reindeer, musk oxen and various birdlife.
  • Northwest Passage – Known as the “Roof of the world”, Northwest Passage cruises travel north around the Canadian High Arctic. Once the only possible shipping route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the area transforms into a majestic white desert in the winter. You can combine the Northwest Passage with Greenland.

Whilst you can see the Northern Lights in Alaska, the skies are sometimes not dark enough until after the cruise season. However, if you’re cruising into late fall, you may get lucky.

Likewise, Scotland often experiences some spectacular Northern Lights displays – however, with Scotland’s often cloudy skies, you have to be either lucky or patient to see them.

The great thing about cruising is that if the crew spot the Lights, they’ll often make in-cabin announcements (no matter what time of day or night!) so you can be sure of making the most of the opportunity. You need to be patient though – sometimes seeing the Lights involves long periods of time on the decks, waiting and observing, so make sure you take appropriate, warm clothing!

And because no one can ever guarantee that the Lights will turn up when required, do your research to maximise your best chances, but also appreciate the destination for all that it offers, with the Northern Lights an awesome bonus!

To speak with one of our team about cruises to the Arctic to see the Northern Lights, click here.


Awesome Northern Lights Images from Unsplash