Seeing the northern lights in Greenland

Watching the northern lights swirl around the sky above your head is one of the most spectacular sights of the natural world – and seeing the northern lights is easy in Greenland.

Greenland is one the best places on earth to see the northern lights
Greenland Travel (CC)

But when should you go, and where is the best place in Greenland to view the aurora borealis?

The truth is, the northern lights can be seen anywhere above the Arctic Circle in winter when the skies are dark, so northern Norway, Sweden and Finland are all good bets.

So, can you see the northern lights in Greenland?

Yes, you certainly can. Thanks to low levels of light pollution, plus a remote location and an incredibly low population density, Greenland is generally regarded as one of the best places on the planet to get a good view of the amazing aurora borealis.

Why is Greenland so good for seeing the northern lights?

The further north you are and the less light pollution there is, the higher your chances of seeing a really spectacular northern lights show.

Nuuk in Greenland is a great place to see the northern lights
Nuuk / jonasmtbxdk (CC)

More than two thirds of Greenland lies above the Arctic Circle and its northern tip is only 500 miles from the North Pole, so the season for viewing the northern lights is pretty long.

Add to that the fact Greenland is the world’s largest island, with a resident population of fewer than 60,000 people, and you’ll see that it’s very easy to get away from the crowds here!

Some 80 percent of the country is covered by the Greenland ice sheet, with hardly any resident population – so no light pollution.

And even Greenland’s largest settlement Nuuk has a population of less than 20,000, so there’s little light pollution even in the larger settlements.

In the north of Greenland is the Kalaallit Nunaat High Arctic Tundra. And tundra weather conditions are often long, cold dark nights – so perfect for sightings of the northern lights.

When is the best time to see the northern lights in Greenland?

The darker the skies, the easier it is to see the lights, so clearly in mid-winter when it is dark for 24 hours a day above the Arctic Circle you have a very good chance of viewing the lights provided the skies are clear. 

But that doesn’t mean you necessarily want to visit in the darkest depths of winter, when temperatures can be far, far below freezing and there is barely any sunlight for sightseeing during the day.

Tasilaq in Greenland is a good location to see the northern lights
Tasilaq / Nick Russill (CC)

In the north of Greenland the northern lights are visible from early September to late March or even early April, so it has one of the longest viewing seasons of any country in the world.

But the peak time to view the northern lights in Greenland is from November to mid-March.

Generally speaking, the shoulder seasons (late Oct to early December, and again between late February and early April) are the best times to visit if you want to mix some aurora spotting with daytime sightseeing.

Where to see northern lights in Greenland

Most people fly into Greenland from Copenhagen in Denmark and arrive at Kangerlussuaq on the island’s west coast.

There’s a reason that Greenland’s main international airport was built here and that’s because it’s a relatively sheltered spot, with a calm micro-climate and fewer clouds and storms than other parts of the island.

In fact, it has almost 300 clear nights a year, which makes it the best location for seeing the northern lights in Greenland.

It also makes a great base for exploring the nearby Russell Glacier and the long, deep Kangerlussuaq fjord. At 120 miles long, its name aptly means “large” in Greenlandic.

Another excellent place in Greenland where you can see the northern lights is Ilulissat. Perched on the edge of the spectacular Disko Bay, it has stunning views of the lights dancing above the huge icebergs in the fjord.

Watch the northern lights at Ilulissat in Greenland
Icebergs at Ilulissat / Göran Ingman (CC)

One of the northernmost UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Ilulissat Icefjord is home to a massive collection of icebergs that have calved from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier.

On the east coast the small towns of Tasiilaq and Kulusuk are both good destinations for spotting the northern lights, though you’ll have to fly in to both of these.

And you can even get views of the northern lights from Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, which is served by regular flights from Reykjavik in Iceland.

Despite the city’s lights, you can often see the aurora borealis in the skies above, and Nuuk is small enough that you can simply walk to the edge of the town away from any streets lamps to get a better view.

Northern lights tours in Greenland

And if you want some help with getting the best view of the northern lights, you may want to book one of Nuuk’s polar night excursions. 

Experienced guides will be able to take you to the best viewing spots and give you the lowdown on the lights.

This two-hour northern lights’ tour from Nuuk also includes a hot chocolate and a warm place to wait for the lights to appear – let’s face it, it’s freezing out there!

Watch the northern lights in Kulusuk in Greenland
Kulusuk / Nick Russill (CC)

Alternatively, you could take this  northern lights’ boat tour, which heads out from Nuuk harbour into the fjord in a warm boat to get great views of the aurora borealis away from any light pollution.

But, best of all why not combine viewing the northern lights with dog-sledding?

This six-day trip includes a session meeting the dogs and learning how to drive a sled as well as a northern lights tour, snow-shoeing and a night in the Igloo Lodge. 

Where to stay in Greenland to see the northern lights

Ilulissat is a good place to base yourself for sightings of the northern lights and it’s also home to the world’s most northerly four-star hotel.

The Hotel Arctic looks over the huge icebergs in the UNESCO-protected Icefjord, and you can often see the northern lights from the bedrooms, through large picture windows.

The hotel even has some igloos (May to October) perched on the edge of the cliff overlooking the fjord that you can sleep in. Made of aluminium, these cosy igloos have windows in the roof so you can lie in bed and look at the stars.

Watch the northern lights from an igloo in Greeenland
Igloo at the Arctic Hotel

And if you fancy staying in a more authentic igloo, Igloo Lodge has six real igloos carved out of snow and ice, in the traditional Inuit style.

You travel out to the igloos from Ilulissat by snowmobile then spend the night in the cosy snow domes.

Inside, sheepskins, super-insulated sleeping bags and candles keep things warm, and there’s a heated wooden hut nearby where dinner is served.

What kit do I need to see the northern lights in Greenland?

The most important thing you’ll need is warm weather clothing. It’s cold in Greenland, and if you’re outside at night tracking down the northern lights, it will be even colder.

Daytime temperatures in Greenland rarely exceed 10°C in summer, and the average daily temperature usually only goes above 0°C in July and August.

In winter, nighttime temperatures can go as low as -50°C! So, come prepared with thermals, fleeces, water- and windproof jackets, gloves, thick socks, boots and a hat.

Other than warm clothing, a good torch is useful and a camera, of course, for capturing the light display.

What causes the northern lights in Greenland?

The northern lights is a natural phenomenon that occurs high up in the earth’s atmosphere.

It’s caused by solar storms on the surface of the sun sending out electrically charged particles which enter the upper atmosphere at very high speeds. 

And the collision of these particles with the atoms and molecules in the earth’s atmosphere causes swirling lights and patterns in the sky. 

The colours of the northern lights are caused by the gases in the earth’s atmosphere. At altitude nitrogen in the night sky causes the purple colour, while the green colours are caused by oxygen.

How did the East Greenland eskimos interpret the mystery of the northern lights?

So that’s the scientific explanation, but the native Greenlanders, correctly called Inuit, have an alternative story about the northern lights.

According to East Greenlanders, what is the legend connected with the northern lights?

The Inuit from East Greenland believe that the northern lights are the spirits of children who died at birth and are now dancing in heaven.

They think that their souls cause the lights to dance and spin around at night.

Other Inuit, such as those from Northern Greenland, believe that the northern lights are the souls of their dead ancestors dancing in the sky.

They call the lights the aurora aksarnirq, and see them as spirits in the sky who carry lights to guide those who are still living on earth.

They also believe that the spirits are playing games, such as football, with a walrus skull. Indeed, the word aksarnirq translates as “ball-player” in English.

FAQ

Are restrooms readily available during northern lights tours in Greenland?

That depends on the type of tour. If you’re travelling on a private guided tour in a car or a jeep, then there won’t be a toilet on board. 

However, almost all tour guides in Greenland speak English and if you ask, they will be happy to stop off at a gas station or café with a restroom on route.

Indeed, most tours will be planned with at least one restroom stop included.

If you’re on a larger coach tour, then there’a a good chance that the coach will have a restroom on board.

What are the southern lights?

The southern lights are a similar phenomenon to the northern lights, but they occur in the southern hemisphere. Instead of being called the aurora borealis, they are known as the aurora australis.

See also:
Greenland vs Iceland
Seeing the northern lights in Scandinavia
Seeing the northern lights in Finland
Seeing the northern lights in Sweden
Seeing the northern lights in Norway

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