I've heard that the Northern Lights most often just look like colored clouds, and very very rarely take on the spectacular curtain-like form we commonly see in pictures.

Can anyone comment on the accuracy of that statement? I don't want to see colored clouds, I want to see the good stuff. If I'm only in that part of the world for 3 nights, assuming clear skies and away from the city, is it likely the aurora will even be worth the time and money spent getting there?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Mark Mayo, Dirty-flow, Vince, user3470, Karlson Jan 21 '14 at 15:28

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    'are they worth questing after' - is very subjective. I've travelled around the world for 2 mins of no sun (solar eclipse) while others mock at the very idea. Can you perhaps edit it to be less subjective? – Mark Mayo Jan 21 '14 at 7:20
  • You could better ask what is the effort to put in to see them, maybe. But in general, there are places and times when you have better chances to see some, so it largely depends on that. – Vince Jan 21 '14 at 10:07
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    The statement is inaccurate. If you are in the right part of the world, it is certainly worth the time to get out. It may not be worth the time and money to travel to the right part of the world solely to see the northern lights, primarily because there is a high risk you won't see them (due to clouds or solar inactivity). – gerrit Jan 21 '14 at 12:17
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    Well, OK, people had different opinions but was it worth it in the end? ;-) – Relaxed Jan 21 '14 at 12:32
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    I've been toying with Iceland in the winter for this very reason. I realize the question may not be the clearest example of a great question, but it does answer something I've often wanted to know. – Affable Geek Jan 21 '14 at 14:35

What's special about the aurora is that it moves, otherwise it can look quite different every time. I've seen it twice, both times rather small and weak, not breathtaking but still a special experience. But it really doesn't look like a cloud.

I'd say the biggest risk is not that it would be disappointing, but that it might not appear at all (or be invisible due to clouds). Going on a 3 day trip just for a chance to see it is probably not worth it, but if you have other things to do there and just spend some extra time aurora hunting, then I'd say go for it.


Northern lights look like a floating ribbon of light. They're very easy to miss if you've never seen them before. The first time I saw them, I thought it was just some car light over the hills. But my parents, who had seen them before, asked me to wait. Within minutes, we could see a ribbon on light floating in the sky, which got thicker as the time passed. Within ten minutes, it was so thick and so low, I felt I could touch it.

As to questing after them: It depends where you are going. I saw them in Iceland, where the government has a very good and accurate website, updated several times a day, that gives you a map of Iceland and the probability of seeing Northern Lights. We always checked that website before leaving, and never had to waste time.

Iceland also has an informal network (other countries might too)- anytime anyone sees the Northen Lights, they let everyone know. In Iceland, all the tourist companies were on this network- as soon as the aurora was spotted, we'd see several buses and cars rushing to the site.

If you don't want to be disappointed, do your research before leaving, to check if the country you are going to has such support. Iceland is the best country, as Northern Lights can be seen right out of (and sometimes inside) the capital city, which means you don't have to drive hundreds of miles.

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