The Northern Lights is recognized as one of the most important and spectacular natural attractions of the Arctic Circle. This dazzling light show has captivated the imaginations of humans for generations and has formed the basis of many myths and legends. Traditionally limited to year-round inhabitants of the Arctic, travelers around the world can now partake in the Northern Lights thanks to modern travel technology. Given the expense of traveling to the Arctic, some travelers might wonder if it is possible to see the Northern Lights in cities.
The answer is not really. Due to a confluence of factors, the best place to witness the Northern Lights is in a rural, secluded area. Read on to discover why cities are not the best places to see the Northern Lights.
Why Can’t the Northern Lights Be Seen in Cities?
Most people are aware that cities and other human activities give off pollution. Pollution is the despoiling of the Earth caused by manmade construction or other activity. For example, cars and factories give off air pollution, belching chemicals into the air that make breathing more difficult and can cause cancer or other health ailments in humans who breathe them. Water pollution occurs when industrial and urban runoff is dumped into rivers, lakes, and the ocean, poisoning water supplies and harming marine life.
Many developing countries take measures to limit pollution by capping smoke emissions and the like in order to preserve the natural environment and improve citizens’ quality of life. However, one form of pollution that is generally ignored is light pollution. Light pollution refers to excess light generated by buildings, cars, and streetlamps. The larger a city, the more light pollution it gives off.
Light pollution generally does not have an effect on human health, but it causes major problems for stargazers and those who like to observe the night sky. Excess light poured into the night sky drowns out stars and planets, making them far more difficult to see. Bright stars appear dimmer when light pollution is added to the mix, while fainter stars disappear altogether. It is for this reason that astronomical observatories are generally located in mountains and rural locales, because these are places where light pollution is minimal or nonexistent.
What does light pollution have to do with the Northern Lights? Simple: excess light pollution makes auroras more difficult to see and can break them up entirely. This is because the artificial light coming from cities causes all atmospheric light—whether it is from stars, planets, the moon, or the Northern Lights—to scatter. Auroras already cannot form during the day due to the fact that the sun’s powerful rays prevent them from forming, and during the night, light emanating from buildings and cars impacts auroras in a similar manner.
It’s for this reason that auroras generally cannot be seen in cities unless they are exceptionally strong. While auroras can sometimes be seen in cities within or near the Arctic Circle, such as Fairbanks, Alaska and Tromsø, Norway, light pollution in these locations makes aurora displays weaker and can also shut out weak auroras entirely.
Another factor in why the Northern Lights can’t be seen in cities is air pollution. Some areas of the Arctic Circle, particularly in Russia, are heavily polluted due to industrial activity. The Russian Arctic city of Norilsk, for example, is one of the polluted cities in the world due to heavy mining activity over the past century. Smog and air particulates in these locations can obscure the Northern Lights from view, making them poor locations for aurora tourism.
The best places by far to see the Northern Lights are secluded areas with little human habitation, minimizing both light and air pollution. If you are planning to visit the Arctic to see the Northern Lights, tour operators based in major cities such as Fairbanks will take you away from the bright lights and smog of urban areas and into bucolic locales where you can see auroras with a minimum of human interference.
While the Northern Lights can sometimes be seen in major cities, it’s rare and generally less impressive when compared to how it is seen in more secluded regions. While the idea of trekking to a cabin or hotel in the middle of nowhere during the Arctic winter may not seem appealing, you’re selling yourself short if you travel up north to see the Northern Lights and spend the entire time in a major city.
While the Arctic winter is nothing to be sneezed at, the best Northern Lights experience is one in a place that is far away from the hustle and bustle of human living. While you’ll have to take some extra steps to go out to the country, the gorgeous sights you’ll be treated to will make the effort more than worth it.