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Northern Lights in Greenland – Ultimate Viewing Guide & Top Tips

Northern Lights in Greenland – Ultimate Viewing Guide & Top Tips

Northern Lights Greenland Secret Atlas

Witnessing the Northern Lights in Greenland is spectacular. It offers one of the most awe-inspiring locations to behold the world’s most magnificent light display. The exemplary beauty held in the dramatic backdrops, remote wilderness and colossal icebergs, set a scene so magical, you’ll have to pinch yourself. 

Our detailed guide to the Northern Lights will tell you everything you need to know!

If you are looking to see the Northern Lights for yourself in Greenland don’t forget to check out our East Greenland Expedition Micro Cruise with 12 Guests or Northern Lights Photo Tour.

Understanding the Northern lights

The phenomenon of the Northern Lights has captivated humanity for centuries, attracting modern-day explorers from around the globe to venture into the polar regions, but what are the Northern Lights? 

It was only in the 20th century that the science behind the Northern Lights was proven. Norwegian scientist, Kristian Birkeland was the first to propose his theory that electrically charged particles from the sun reacting with the Earth’s magnetic field and gases in our atmosphere were the cause of the Northern Lights. 

It’s only a very small percentage of particles that leak through to the Earth’s magnetic field that are funnelled downwards to the magnetic north and south poles. This is why locations situated inside the Arctic Circle are the best for viewing the Northern Light.

What causes the different colours in the Northern Lights?

The colours of the northern lights are determined by a number of factors:

  • Composition of gases in Earth’s atmosphere
  • The altitude where the aurora occurs
  • Density of the atmosphere
  • Level of energy involved

Every atom or molecule possesses its distinct range of colours that it absorbs and emits, akin to our individual fingerprints!

The prevailing shade is green, resulting from the collision of charged particles with oxygen molecules. Meanwhile, nitrogen molecules produce reds and pink tints, whereas the elusive blues and purples, (more challenging to spot against the nocturnal expanse) emerge through a combination of hydrogen and helium.

Greenland northern lights secret atlas

The Northern Lights witnessed in Scoresby Sund in East Greenland by Virgil Reglioni on Our Northern Lights Photo Expedition.

Factors affecting the Northern Lights

The visibility of the Northern Lights depends on the following key elements: 

  1. The magnetic activity of the Earth (how much the Earth’s magnetic field is disturbed at that time) 
  2. Your geographical location
  3. Light pollution 
  4. The weather 
  5. The moon 

Forecasts showing the magnetic activity can be found on The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, which allows you to view predicted activity in all auroral regions. 

The best conditions for viewing the Nothern Lights are when: 

  • Magnetic activity reaches about 4Kp 
  • Within the Arctic circle 
  • Little to 0% light pollution 
  • Clear evenings 
  • New moon

Why Greenland? 

The majority of Greenland is positioned perfectly within the Arctic Circle, making it one of the best locations to witness the Northern Lights. It comes as no surprise that the natural phenomenon holds such significance in Greenland, that it has been interwoven into the traditional beliefs of the Greenlandic Inuit for many generations. 

Greenland is one of the least inhabited countries in the world, therefore light pollution as a whole is minimal, making it all the better to watch the display. But there’s one place that truly stands out – Scroresby Sund. (Our favourite destination) 

We must remember, that while the Northern Lights are undeniably breathtaking, the destination itself plays an equally significant role in the overall experience.

Scoresby Sund is an extraordinary destination, boasting the world’s largest fjord system. Accessible for only a brief period of the year due to its remote location, this region is dictated by the wilderness. The absence of light pollution reveals jaw-dropping backdrops and colossal icebergs, bigger than anywhere else in the world, enhancing the already surreal experience. 

Find out more about our expeditions to Scoresby Sund here.

Myths and legends 

Where do we start when it comes to the numerous myths and legends linked to the Northern Lights?

There’s no denying the spectacular display induces magical properties. Their captivating enchantment has enticed mankind for thousands of years and the northern lights are still amongst the most popular attraction for explorers today. 

Whatever tale you resonate with, one this is for sure – whether good or evil, the Northern Lights signify great importance and power. 

Explore our top 5 myths and legends surrounding the Northern Lights…

1. Warriors Souls 

The Vikings believed that in each battle taken place on earth, Odin the God of Asgard would personally select the fallen warriors to join him in the sacred afterlife, Valhalla. 

The fallen warriors were guided to the sacred realm by the Valkyries – powerful women riding horses, decorated in armour, brandishing spears and shields. 

Folklore believes that the Northern Lights were the shimmering reflections of the Valkyries armour on their journey to Odin’s realm with the chosen fallen warriors. 

2. Ominous Turn of Events  

In contrast to the tales of heroism and valour, the northern lights phenomena were met with fear by the Sámi people; the indigenous Finno-Ugric inhabitants of northern Scandinavia.

The Sámi believe that the lights represent souls of the past and their presence is regarded as an omen of misfortune. 

A mixture of fear, caution and respect casts rule that one should not converse about the Northern Lights or do anything to attract any attention including singing or whistling. Erring on the side of caution,  the Sámi community choose to remain indoors when the Northern Lights cast their luminous glow across the sky. It’s believed that the lights can take a person and even severe one’s head. 

3. The Fire Fox 

In Finland, it’s believed that the ‘fire foxes’ are responsible for the Northern Lights. ‘Revontulet’ is the Finnish word for the Northern Lights which is translated to ‘fire fox’ – hence the origin of the myth.

The Finnish narrative recounts that the foxes dashed so quickly across the sky, that as their tales brushed past the snowy mountains, snowflakes were scattered across the sky. These snowflakes reflected the moon’s radiant glow, giving rise to the Northern Lights. 

4. Childbirth 

The Eskimo tribes believed that the Northern Lights were the souls of the children lost at childbirth. They also believed that they could use the Aurora to communicate with their dead relatives. 

Icelandic ancestors believed that the Northern Lights had the power to relieve the pain of childbirth as long as the expecting mother did not look directly at the lights. However, if she did it was said the child would be born cross-eyed. 

5. Skull Cosmic Games 

In the north of Greenland, the Inuit community held a belief that the Northern Lights were the spirits of the dead engaging in cosmic games, using a walrus skull. Interestingly, in different local Inuit groups, an alternative interpretation took shape, suggesting that it was the walruses themselves engaging in these cosmic games, using a human skull in their playful activities

Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights are often referred to as the ‘aurora borealis’, which originated from Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei in 1619. Derived from Greek mythology, Aurora was the goddess of dawn and the word “Borealis” comes from the Greek word “boreas,” which means “north wind.” Aurora Borealis simply translates to “northern dawn”. 

However, ancient cave paintings dating back around 30,000 years portray what resembles the northern light, potentially bearing a distinct name in those times.

When is the best time to visit? 

The Northern Lights are present all year round however, the best viewing is in the darkness of the winter season.  

  • The winter season is from mid-September to April and the best time to witness the Northern Lights
  • The most active Aurora is around the equinoxes in March and September 
  • The Northern Lights most commonly appear between 17.00 and 02.00
  • The Northern Lights usually only appear for a few minutes. A good display can last up to around 15-30 minutes, however, it’s been known to extend to over 2 hours

Where’s best to watch the Northern Lights in Greenland? 

The majority of Greenland sits within the Arctic Circle, making it a prime location for viewing the Northern Lights. Typically, the Northern Lights are seen clearest from 68° – 74° N latitude – Greenland is located between 60° and 85°N latitude, making it an ideal location! 

A small ship is the perfect way to explore Greenland… Imagine sitting on deck with a warm cup of cocoa, anchored in a fjord entirely isolated from the rest of the world. Just you, nature and the Northern Lights dancing overhead… 

Discover our Expedition Micro Cruises with 12 Guests to Greenland

Scoresby Sund 

Socresby Sund is one of the most remote destinations you can reach in Greenland. Situated on the east coast, it has one of the largest fjord systems in the world! 

Engulfed by colossal icebergs, dramatic scenery it offers the perfect setting, but this specific location is rare in that it has 0% light pollution, making this likely one the best locations to witness the northern lights. 

Choose our 8-day photo tour for the best chance in seeing the Northern Lights in Scoresby Sund.

Ilulissat

Ilulisat is located on the west coast of Greenland and 250km north of the Arctic Circle, offering excellent opportunities to witness the northern lights.  

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, Ilulisat’s beauty adds to the experience. 

Nuuk

Nuuk is the capital of Greenland and is located south of the Polar Circle. The northern lights are often seen here and sometimes quite significant,  however, the town emits a lot of light pollution from shops, houses and street lighting reducing the overall effect.

Guided Tours vs. Solo Adventures

Planning your expedition can be an overwhelming prospect. The remote, harsh conditions of Greenland are not to be underestimated. Any expedition into these territories demands serious consideration and experience.

Guided tours are the best way to get the most out of your expedition. Witnessing the Northern Lights at their best hinge upon a number of factors and demand time and expertise. 

Our guides at Secret Atlas are experts in their field and regardless of how much research you undertake, nothing beats personal experience. As you embrace the environment, our guides interpret forecasts, ensuring you have the best opportunity to witness the Northern Lights.

Apart from providing invaluable insights, historical context, and practical advice, they’ve got pretty adept at sharing the alluring myths and legends that play a vital part in the mystery.  

Meet the Secret Atlas team 

Photographing the Northern Lights 

Numerous variables come into play when photographing the Northern Lights; it’s a bit of trial and error, even for the pros! 

The shifting canvas of the night sky is ever-changing, meaning so are your camera settings but don’t be put off – the joy lies in experimentation.

We’ve put together some top tips to help you capture the perfect shot. If you’re interested in taking your photography further, why not check out our dedicated Photo Tours?

Essential Equipment for Photographing the Northern Lights

1. Camera

  • Choose a camera with manual settings options – this must include, the f-stop, shutter speed and ISO. 
  • A full-frame camera will produce much higher-quality photos.

2. Batteries

  • Batteries drain much quicker in the cold, so ensure to have enough spare to switch out if necessary 
  • Keeping your space batteries in a pocket close to your body will extend their life

3. Memory Cards

  • Make sure you have enough storage on your memory card – it’s best to bring multiple cards 

4. Camera Lens 

  • A wide-angle lens is often preferred as this allows you to capture more of the sky
  • A wide-angle lens has a focal length of 35mm or shorter.

5. Tripod

  • A sturdy tripod is essential to steady when taking photos with a long exposure, as even the smallest amount of movement can spil your picture. 
  • Make sure your tripod is the right weight and size to withstand your camera. 

Find out what equipment professional photographer Chase Teron uses to photograph the Arctic here:

The Ultimate Photography Equipment List for Arctic Photography Expeditions

Upcoming Northern Lights Expedition Micro Cruises in Greenland

Guest Stories

People are at the heart of everything we do here at Secret Atlas, and our guests' experience is top of our list.

We've put together a video for our guests to share their experiences with you, or you can read guests' stories below.