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At the top of most travelers' bucket lists, the northern lights (also known as the aurora borealis) is nature's most dazzling light show. But even for the most well-traveled, this phenomenon can be difficult to come by, so how exactly can you track it down?
Hard to spot at the best of times, aurora hunters might have heard that this year the sun is almost about to enter the Solar Minimum phase. This means the northern lights will be dimmer and occur less frequently over the next decade, with 2019 and 2020 marking the lowest point.
However, it doesn't mean that the lights will fade completely. Contrary to some of the more defeatist rumors, aurora watchers won’t have to bid farewell to the northern lights as the Solar Minimum takes place, but the importance of your location will become especially vital for your auroral viewing. Here's a quick guide for northern light explorers.
Why are the northern lights fading this year?
While theories come and go, scientists' present understanding of northern lights activity is that their intensity and frequency is bound to 11-year cycles. We've reached the end of the latest cycle and started the downswing of visibility. An effect which is predicted to last until around 2025. During that low activity phase, there will still be lights, but they will be a bit less frequent and less vivid.
When Is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights?
Winter and spring are generally less cloudy than fall, and summer sees too many long days and not enough dark hours. So, time your trip between December and March and plan to watch the sky between 10 pm and 2 am.
Where Can I See the Northern Lights in 2018?
So where should you go? Physicists believe auroral displays will become increasingly localized. Clear skies are essential always, but even more so now. A good bet is Northern Scandinavian areas such as Finland (don't miss glass igloo hotel, Kakslauttanen), Sweden, and Norway (head to Tromso)—and once you've got there, you'll need to find a remote location with minimal light pollution.
But regardless, if you have your heart set on other known light-viewing spots such as Iceland, Alaska, and Canada, you'll still have some chance to see the display. Just keep track of forecasting.
Northern Lights Forecasting
You can get an idea of how active the northern lights are likely to be in your area by keeping tabs on a short-term aurora forecast. The SolarHam website gives a reliable three-day geomagnetic forecast used by aurora hunters, while the Aurora Forecast app shows the position of the auroral oval around the Arctic Circle—and also indicates the probability of seeing them where you are.