Of all the beautiful sights to see in Alaska, the Northern Lights have to be at the very top of the list.
Even longtime Alaskans (also known as Sourdoughs) still go out of their way to see the Northern Lights when they come out.
If you’re planning on an Alaskan cruise, you may be wondering if you’ll be able to see them from your cruise ship.
The answer to that is rather complex and it depends on a few factors, but if you plan your trip with the Northern Lights in mind, you’ll have a much better chance.
What Are the Northern Lights?
You may already know what the Northern Lights are, but since I hate reading articles that don’t explain what they’re talking about and just assume that you already know, I’ll give a brief explanation.
The Northern Lights, also known by their scientific name Aurora Borealis, are a beautiful display of different-colored lights seen in the night sky.
They’re created when ions (electrically-charged particles) from the sun enter the Earth’s outer atmosphere. Those particles begin to glow and put on some of the most beautiful natural displays known to man.
They are often described as “neon lights in the sky” because the same principle is used to create actual neon signs, just without the sun being involved.
They can only be seen between certain latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. Aurora Australis, or the Southern Lights, are a similar phenomenon that can only be seen (as the name suggests) in the Southern Hemisphere.
When Do The Northern Lights Appear?
There are three requirements that must be met before the Northern Lights will appear in the sky.
First, and probably most obviously, it has to be dark. If it’s too bright out, you won’t be able to see anything.
Second, there must be clear skies. There have been quite a few times when I was out walking at night and I saw the Northern Lights for just a minute or two before the clouds moved over and blocked my view.
Third, there must be high enough levels of aurora activity (i.e., enough of those particles in the Earth’s outer atmosphere).
There is always aurora activity somewhere on Earth, but it could be centered around the North Pole (the actual pole, not the city) or somewhere else where it’s not easily visible.
The lights are particularly bright and have a farther reach during large aurora events, usually created by solar flares. In 2001, there was one aurora event so large that the Northern Lights could be seen as far south as Texas.
What Time of Year Can They Be Seen?
Unfortunately, this is the bit that makes it difficult (but not impossible!) to see while on a cruise ship.
The skies have to be dark enough for the lights to be visible, as we’ve established. Alaska is often called “The Land of the Midnight Sun” for a reason.
It is important to note, however, that Southeast Alaska does actually get a few hours of darkness even in the middle of summer. Although it is extremely rare, I saw them at 1 AM in June of this year while walking back from a friend’s apartment.
The main Northern Lights “season” for Alaska is late August to mid-April, because of something called “The Russell-McPherron Effect“.
The Russell-McPherron Effect states that there is a higher level of that electromagnetic activity I mentioned that we need in order for the lights to be visible during or near an equinox than there would be during a solstice, due to the Earth’s rotation.
For that reason, the absolute best time to see them is in March, around the time of the new moon and the Spring Equinox. Unfortunately, cruise ship season doesn’t begin until the middle of May.
I Still Want to See Them From a Cruise Ship, Though!
That’s okay, you totally can! You’ll just want to book your cruise for the last week of August or any time in September.
You’ll also want to go on a longer cruise if you can, because (as I mention quite a bit!) Southeast Alaska contains the Tongass National Forest, the largest rainforest in North America.
That means there are a lot of clouds, which interfere with the clear skies we mentioned earlier as being necessary to see the lights.
If you can get a week-long or more cruise in September, you’ll have a pretty good chance of seeing them at least once.
Best Ways To See The Northern Lights In Alaska
If seeing the Northern Lights is your top priority, it might be best not to leave it to chance by hoping to see them on a cruise.
Since the Northern Lights are more easily visible at higher latitudes, Fairbanks is an excellent place to see them and there are several lodges nearby that are specifically designed to help you see the lights.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a cruise as well if that’s what you want to do, however!
One potential idea would be to take a one-way cruise from Seattle or Vancouver to Anchorage. From there, you can take a ride on the Alaska Railroad train to Fairbanks, an 11-hour ride that also gives you a great chance to see Alaska’s beautiful Interior.
You’ll actually want to get a little bit out of the city center, as the lights in the city can interfere with seeing the Aurora.
There are various tours you can take, ranging from lodges near town to a couple of helicopter tours that take you above the Arctic Circle to a town called Coldfoot, where the lights are very bright.
After you’ve seen the lights, you can return to Fairbanks and fly back to Seattle from Fairbanks International Airport.
The Northern Lights are extremely beautiful and, having lived here for 30 years, I can tell you that pictures don’t do them justice.
If you want a chance to see them on a cruise, you should aim for a longer cruise at the end of the season in late August or early September, but please keep in mind that it’s not always a guarantee.
There are several websites that you can use to track aurora activity and will give you an idea as to your chances of seeing them.
If the activity is low during your trip, you may want to add a few days to the end and consider the trip to Fairbanks, either by railroad or by plane.
I wish you the very best of luck in your quest to see the Northern Lights and I hope you get the chance to enjoy them during your next visit to Alaska!