The Northern Lights are one of nature’s greatest shows. You’ve seen pictures of the aurora, and you dream of being a part of the pictures. Seeing the Northern Lights with the naked eye is a bucket list worthy vacation, and for many, the trip of a lifetime. 

So what are the Northern Lights, how are they formed, where is the best place to see them? What is the KP number that you may have come across in your Northern Lights research and how should it be interpreted?

Here is everything you need to know about the Northern Lights

WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS? HOW ARE THEY FORMED?

In its simplest form, the aurora is the natural phenomenon where solar particles enter Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth’s shield pushes these particles to the north and south poles, protecting the planet from solar flares. 

These particles that bounce off the poles through the atmosphere are called Northern Lights in the North Pole and Southern Lights in the South Pole.

The video below contains very useful information about how the Northern Lights form and how they touch the Earth.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?

The Northern Lights can be observed in the northern hemisphere in Alaska, Canada, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Sweden, Finland, Norway and the northern regions of Russia. The Northern Lights occur from 80 to 120 km above the earth’s surface.

You need to be far enough north to see the Northern Lights, so traveling to at least 62 degrees North will increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights with the naked eye.

WHAT FACTORS DO YOU NEED TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?

You need three main factors to see the Northern Lights: darkness, a cloud-free sky, solar activity.

WHEN CAN YOU SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?

The Northern Lights season begins in September and ends the end of March.

The rest of the year, daytime lasts much longer than night in northern countries until it reaches 24 hours of daylight, or what we call the midnight sun. During this period of long days, it is impossible to see the Northern Lights.

When is the best time to see the northern lights

What makes the Northern Lights fascinating is that it is not easy to observe this natural phenomenon and what the lights will look like on any given night is truly up to chance. For this reason, you can easily set your travel to see the Northern Lights for any date between September and April. From September through April, there is no “best month” to see the lights.

The best way to increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights is to get your information from a local guide and rely on an experienced tour company to guide you on your trip of a lifetime to see the Northern Lights. 

WHAT IS THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?

There are plenty of places around the world to see the Northern Lights, but Abisko in Swedish Lapland has a unique climate that makes it one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. Thanks to the Abisko’s microclimate, the region has the driest air in Scandinavia. With drier air comes more cloud free nights that are required to see the Northern Lights. 

WHAT IS THE KP INDEX?

In order for us to see the Northern Lights, particles that break away from the sun must enter the Earth’s atmosphere and an interaction must occur with other atmospheric particles. These interactions take place throughout the year. We measure the rate of atmospheric interactions with solar particles via the KP Index.

KP measurements range from 0 to 9, with higher numbers indicating stronger atmospheric interactions with these particles. It’s a way to describe the overall strength of geomagnetic storms.

After the Northern Lights enter Earth’s atmosphere, they follow a ring-shaped path, which we call the aurora oval. As the KP number increases, the aurora oval expands, which tells us how large an area the Northern Lights affect.

The following KP map created for this gives us a very detailed explanation. According to the KP value each day, it means that you can see the Northern Lights on that line or in higher regions.

Check Abisko kp index for today!

Do I have a better chance of viewing the northern lights if KP Index is high?

Since Abisko and Kiruna are already on the right latitude for the northern lights, we only need the kp-index to be 0 or 1, which are the lowest numbers. We have seen amazing shows on nights with low Kp-index, as well as nights with a high Kp-index but no sign of the northern lights.

For those seeking to observe the northern lights from a southern location (e.g. central Sweden, Stockholm or the Baltic region), the kp can be used as a guide.

How to read the KP Index

Kp is indeed calculated as an average over a 24-hour period, and this average can sometimes be misleading, especially when there’s a significant difference between daytime and nighttime values. Here’s why:

The Kp index is calculated by averaging the values measured over a 3-hour interval. So, if you have Kp 6 during the day and Kp 0 at night, and you average these values over a 24-hour period, you might indeed get an average of 3. This average represents the overall level of geomagnetic activity during the day and night.

However, this average doesn’t capture the real-time situation. Even though the average is 3, it doesn’t mean that there’s a consistent Kp level of 3 throughout the day and night. At night, when you observe the northern lights or aurora borealis, the Kp value may very. The Kp index is a smoothed representation of the 24-hour period and may not reflect the specific conditions at any given moment.

Unfortunately, a high KP number can disappoint many tourists but you should know that it’s entirely possible to see the aurora borealis at night with a Kp of 0 when the solar activity is quiet in Abisko and Kiruna. On a day with a high KP index, even if you are in a cloudless and dark area, the Northern Lights may not interact intensely and show themselves and you might find many people returning home without seeing any Northern Lights. It’s essential to remember that aurora watching remains somewhat unpredictable and that there are nights when auroras might not be visible despite favorable Kp values.

To get a more precise understanding of the current geomagnetic conditions, it’s essential to check the real-time Kp values or other relevant space weather information.

WHAT DOES KP INDEX MEAN FOR NORTHERN LIGHTS GUIDES?

The KP Index does not mean much to an experienced Northern Lights tour guide. The reason is quite simple, the aurora is a magnificent natural phenomenon that is unpredictable even with a KP indicator. 

Kp index doesn’t guarantee that you will see auroras. While the Kp index provides a general indication of geomagnetic conditions, it doesn’t predict the occurrence of specific auroras.

How to actually pick the best night for joining a tour?

When it comes to chasing the Northern Lights, the best time to do it is usually the first night you’re in the region. That way, you’ll have time to do more chases during your stay, in case you didn’t see it the first night.

Picture of Onur Çağan Aygün
Onur Çağan Aygün

Co-founder of Lights of Vikings

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