9 Lies (and One Truth) People Tell You About Seeing the Northern Lights

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It's that time of year again – the time when people travel to the far northern reaches of the world in hopes of seeing the elusive aurora borealis; the Northern Lights.

I've been on a couple Northern Lights-seeking missions in the past few years. In Iceland. In Canada. In Arctic Norway. Not all my forays have been successful (I've yet to see them in Iceland despite two separate winter trips there), but I've learned a lot about this phenomenon along the way.

And that includes learning all the things that people tell you about seeing the Northern Lights that just aren't true.

There are plenty of myths surrounding seeing the Northern Lights, and I'm here to dispel a few of them for you.

9 Lies People Tell You About Seeing the Northern Lights

Don't listen to the following myths about seeing the Northern Lights:

1. You won't see the Lights for the next 11 years

At the end of 2015, a frantic rumor was circulating around on the internet that the Northern Lights were going to disappear for the next decade or so. Countless news outlets reported that it was your “last chance” to see them for the next ten years.

This simply isn't true. What IS true is that the aurora is affected by solar activity and more or less follows an 11-year solar cycle. But they can't just be “turned off.”

Holmen Husky Lodge in Alta, Norway
Even a weak showing like this one can still be pretty incredible!

So, while it's predicted that the Lights may not be as bright or appear as frequently as they have in the last couple of years until the peak of the next solar cycle (which will be 2024-2026), it absolutely does not mean that you will have to wait until then to see them. 

2. The Lights are only visible in the winter months

Winter is a popular time to see the Northern Lights, but that doesn't actually mean it's the only time of year that you can see them. The aurora borealis is not a seasonal phenomenon; it occurs based on solar particles interacting with the gasses in our atmosphere – and this literally happens year-round.

You usually can SEE the Lights best in the winter months simply because those months have more hours of darkness per day, and darkness is one of the necessary conditions for seeing the aurora.

Northern Lights
Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba in March 2013

Ask any northerner, though, and they'll tell you that they will sometimes spot the Lights at night as early as August each year, and into April the next. (September through March is generally regarded as Northern Lights “season” in most places.)

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3. You can't see the aurora if the moon is shining

The best conditions for seeing the Northern Lights include a few key factors: Mainly dark skies without any clouds. And, usually, the less light pollution in the sky, the better. This leads many people to profess that you won't see the aurora if the moon is shining brightly.

While it's true that a full moon can dim the Lights a bit, it certainly doesn't negate your chances of seeing them entirely.

Northern Lights in Northern Norway
Super-bright moon, and yet we still could see the Lights.

In fact, one of the best Northers Lights shows I've seen yet was on a night that included a bright almost-full moon in Norway.

Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway
Most amazing Northern Lights – with a nearly-full moon shining.

RELATED: Chasing the Northern Lights in Arctic Norway

4. Clear, dark skies guarantee a sighting

Along a similar vein, many people assume that since aurora “conditions” require clear, dark skies, this means that clear, dark skies will always produce a Northern Lights show. I wish I could say this was true, but it unfortunately isn't.

Sky conditions have nothing to do with the aurora borealis (remember, the Lights are caused by solar particles interacting with elements in our atmosphere). The chemical reaction that happens up there in the sky happens regardless of cloud cover – we just can't see it happening when it's too cloudy.

Northern Lights in Northern Norway
Look at all that amazingness happening behind the clouds!

I've seen the Northern Lights on cloudy nights AND clear nights – and I've also failed to see them on both cloudy nights and clear nights. You'll of course always have a better chance of seeing them if the skies are clear, but don't always count on it!

Northern Lights
A clear, dark night with no aurora (yet).

5. You shouldn't book a guided Lights-chasing tour

A lot of independent travelers turn their noses up at guided tours, insisting that doing their own thing always leads to better experiences. While this may be true in many cases, I really don't think it applies when it comes to the Northern Lights.

In order to see and truly appreciate this natural wonder, you really need to be with someone who knows a bit about “chasing” the Lights. Someone who can puzzle out the weather forecast, read the KP index, and understand when you should stay put and when you should move on to a different location in hopes of catching a Lights show.

Plus, guides generally have friends who are also guides, and many of them talk when out hunting the aurora. Which means that if there's a good sighting elsewhere, chances are your guide will hear about it (and then hopefully take you there).

Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway
I would not have caught this glimpse of Northern Lights without a guide – it was literally in the middle of nowhere!

I'm not saying that you CAN'T go Northern Lights chasing on your own – of course you can. But if you want the best chance of seeing them (and want to learn a bit more about them, and potentially even get some photography tips), I highly recommend booking a guided tour.

Northern Lights guides are usually huge fans themselves, and will do everything possible to make sure you have the best chance of seeing them. (For those who are tour-averse, simply look for ones that advertise small groups instead of big coach buses.)

6. If tours are running, you'll see the aurora

My tour recommendation comes with a caveat, though: just because tours are running on a particular night in no way guarantees an aurora sighting.

Most companies will cancel tours if the weather forecast looks terrible (i.e. completely cloudy skies with little chance of a break), but they can never guarantee a sighting in good weather (natural, scientific phenomenon, remember?).

Northern Lights
Northern Lights tour with Frontiers North Adventures

It's of course more *likely* that you'll see the Northern Lights on a night that various Lights-chasing tours are running, but never consider it a guarantee. (I've been on two Northern Lights tours where we never saw anything – many companies will let you re-book on a second night for free if this happens to you.)

7. You should always plan around the Kp-index

The Kp-index (officially the Planetary K-index) is essentially the closest thing to a Northern Lights forecast that we have. It measures geomagnetic storm strength on a scale of 0 to 9, and the numbers correspond to the strength (and brightness) of any possible aurora.

The higher the Kp-index number, the better the chance of a good aurora show.

Northern Lights
The KP-index was high this night – this was taken right under some streetlamps!

But, as with any type of forecasting, you don't want to rely completely on the Kp-index. You might get an amazing showing on a night when the Kp-index is only supposed to be at a 2, and you may get nothing on a night when the Kp-index is at a 4 or 5.

If you have the option of going Northern Lights chasing on a night with a Kp-index of 7 vs. another night with a Kp-index of 1, I'd definitely go with the 7. But that doesn't mean you have no chance of seeing them when the index is at a 1 or 2, either, especially if the skies are clear.

8. You don't need a good camera

If the aurora is strong enough, you WILL be able to see it with your naked eye with no question about what you're looking at. But when the aurora is weaker, it's sometimes tricky to differentiate between wispy clouds and the Northern Lights.

A good camera, however, can pick up a lot more light and color than our human eyeballs can at night. This is why you do really want a good camera with you if you're going to be chasing the Northern Lights.

Northern Lights at Paeskatun
I could only see this green streak thanks to my camera – to the naked eye, it just looked like a slightly off-color wisp of cloud.

A “good camera” doesn't need to be super expensive, though. Ideally, it needs to be one with a manual mode so you can set your shutter speed (how fast a photo is taken) and aperture (how much light is let in) on your own.

A slow shutter speed (anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds) and small aperture (the lower the number, the better) are what you're going for – and you'll want a tripod to put your camera on in order to avoid camera shake.

I've shot the Northern Lights with an Olympus PEN E-P2 and an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, and got photos I was happy with both times.

RELATED: Tips for How to Photograph the Northern Lights

9. They will look just like they do in all the photos

Hopefully if you've made it to this part of the post, you'll already know that this isn't true. So many factors go into a Northern Lights “show,” and no two nights are ever the same.

One night you may get an amazing, strong, and long showing of the aurora, while the next you may get nothing more than a dark sky. Some nights you'll be able to see greens and reds with the naked eye, while other nights you'll struggle to see any color at all.

Northern Lights
It's amazing when you get to see two colors at once, but certainly isn't guaranteed.

There's no guarantee that the Northern Lights you see will look anything like all those amazing photos you've seen online – but I would still recommend going, because there's of course never any telling what you WILL see!

One Truth about the Northern Lights

The one truth people will tell you about seeing the Northern Lights is this:

Once will never, ever be enough.

Once you've caught that aurora borealis bug, prepare to always want more. I've been out with people who have been Lights-chasing for decades, and they're always still so excited when that first hint of green dances across the sky.

The Northern Lights may not *actually* be magical, but they certainly can work like magic on people who see them.

Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway

Essential Northern Lights info

Is seeing the Northern Lights on your bucket list? Or have you seen them yourself and discovered any of the “lies” on this list?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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64 Comments on “9 Lies (and One Truth) People Tell You About Seeing the Northern Lights

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  1. My Northern Lights experience happened in UP Michigan of all places. I was staying up there (wasn’t even winter, either, I believe it was some time in September) and a friend of mine called me saying that the Northern Lights were appearing abnormally far south that night. Went outside and low and behold, there was the ghostly green sheets all across the sky–bright as can be! Bucket-list…check!

    I’ve seen the Northern Lights scores of times in Keflavik, Iceland (SW corner), but I’m been there so many times I have collectively over 2 years time on the island. And they’re almost NEVER seen in summer months because… well, because it’s not dark. And whereas I have NO proof, it seems that, of the dozens and dozens of times I’ve seen them (I also lived in Alaska and spent a LOT of time in Eastern Canada) I saw them best when it was coldest (between 0 and -40f). And you’re ABSOLUTELY RIGHT… “once will never, ever be enough”, and you ALWAYS want “one more time”. Oh, and you CAN hear them.

      Yes, it’s tough to see them in the summer because it’s just not dark enough that far north! Lucky that you’ve been able to see them so many times!

    why in gods green pastures would anyone admire the carbon pollution build up, since our planet is magnetic do not ever say you cant see climate change. THIS IS WHERE ALL OF THE POLLUTION GOES. FACTS

      I would encourage you to read up a little more on the science behind the Aurora Borealis. It has little to do with greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. The Northern Lights are caused when solar particles (those are particles given off by our sun) interact with natural elements in our atmosphere like oxygen and nitrogen. The “bad” green house gasses you’re alluding to are things like carbon dioxide, methane, and different chlorofluorocarbons – these are not what “create” the Northern Lights.

    I have been to Alaska with the main goal of seeing the Northern Lights. I missed them twice. The reception desk at the hotel told us to put our names in her book if we wanted to be called if the lights showed that night. She failed to call anyone. Now we are taking a viking cruise to Norway in Feb 2020 with the hope of seeing the lights. I’m hoping we are successful. Thank you for all your advise.

      I hope you’re able to see them, Fran! They can be so fickle, though. But I’m sure your cruise will be amazing either way!

    I saw them in October 2015, in Reykjavik. They were so bright that we could see them in the parking lot of our hostel! Purple, green, and white, and they looked just like a documentary. I cried. Definitely a sight I’ll never forget.

    A nice article and amazing pictures! I’m off to Tromso in January to catch the Aurora for first time. Fingers crossed!!

      Fingers crossed indeed – I hope you get to see them!

    I’m going next February (very early in the month) to Sweden (Abisko, Jukkasjarvi) and Norway (Tromso) to see the lights.

      I hope you see some great displays!

        I figured that longer I stay up north, and the closer to the Arctic Circle, the higher my chances in seeing the Aurora. I also realized one town is not enough, so I selected the three towns (Abisko, Jukkasjarvi, Tromso) for two nights each to maximize the possibility of seeing this once in a lifetime views at least once.

    I have a cuestion. Is it dangerous to watch the Northern Lights for the humans? Be
    cause the radiation.

      No, it is not dangerous to watch them.

    Such a funny article Amanda, but sooooo true!
    I haven’t yet seen the Northern Lights (at least I don’t think so), but I really want to!
    p.s. Lovely photographs as usual.

      I’ve seen them a few times now, but I always want more!

    Great post! I think I have heard all of these :). A further benefit of a tour is that the guides can be quite knowledgeable about how to photograph the northern lights and will be able to help you capture them with your camera.

      Yes, that’s very true, too! They can usually help you get the settings right on your camera and sometimes will even help you set up shots (or take photos OF you with the Lights in the background, which is a great souvenir to take home!).

    Your photos turned out beautifully despite all the lies people tell about northern lights. You were well prepared! 😉

      Aww thanks, Marie! I still think I can take even better ones, though!

    Thanks for clearing up misconceptions about the Northern Lights. I’m most eager to go to Iceland because of the lights. The things you’ve written down here are very useful for me and I’ll sure to tote a camera with me so I can capture and see those lights (if I happen to be lucky) over and over again!

      The good news about Iceland is that it’s amazing with or without the Northern Lights. 😉

    This is on my bucket list! We’re visiting Scandinavia in a couple months, I hope we get to see them!

      I hope you get to see them, too, Rachel!

    The light is so magical and you are lucky that you were watching it directly on the sky and captured the pictures. And about the truth “Once will never, ever be enough” i totally agree cos people will be hypnotiozed once they watch it. Ur explanation is quit clear and make us envy you

      Yes, I’m definitely lucky to have seen them so many times!

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