Northern Lights in Greenland - Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland 3

The Northern Lights in Greenland: All You Need to Know

Aurora Guide Space Tourism

Some destinations are easy to get visit; you need to hop on a plane, get a passport stamp, and enjoy the culture, history, or food you came to experience. When it comes to destinations where you can see the aurora, even some of those are easier to get to than others. It’s relatively easy, for example, to visit Iceland or Norway to see the northern lights. Greenland on the other hand? Not as easy – but maybe that’s what makes seeing the northern lights in Greenland more rewarding! Whether you’re traveling to Greenland specifically or passing through Greenland while sailing the Northwest Passage, it’s possible to visit and see the northern lights in Greenland.

If you’ve set your sights on heading to Kalaallit Nunaat (the Greenlandic name for their icy, frozen homeland) to see the aurora borealis, you’ll be well rewarded. Greenland is one of the best aurora destinations on the planet, and though you may have to take an extra flight or two, your chances of seeing the northern lights are good enough to make the travel worth it.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about seeing the northern lights in Greenland, including the best destinations, and some tour suggestions to help inspire your trip.

What are the Northern Lights?

If you’ve made it to this post, you likely already know what the northern lights, also called the aurora borealis, are. In case you’re not familiar with the science behind this amazing astronomical phenomenon, here’s a quick explanation.

The sun is constantly emitting particles; these electrically charged particles from the sun collide with gases in the earth’s atmosphere. As these collisions occur in different gases, light is produced in a variety of colors, depending on the altitude of these collisions. For example, at a certain altitude, oxygen produces the common red color seen in the aurora; lower, it produces the green most commonly seen in the night sky.

In the northern hemisphere, the northern lights are called aurora borealis. This name came from none other than Galileo, who named them after the Greek word for the north wind. If you’ve ever seen a picture of the aurora, you can understand why he thought they looked like the wind!

The Best Time of Year to See the Northern Lights in Greenland

Greenland is widely considered one of the best destinations in the world to see the northern lights – in part because it has one of the longest possible windows to see the aurora! Read on to learn about the seasons (yes, plural) when you can see the aurora borealis in Greenland.

Autumn (September to October)

As soon as the autumnal equinox has passed, it’s ‘aurora season’ in Greenland. From late September through into winter, you have a good chance of seeing the northern lights in the skies above Greenland. Weather in autumn can be pretty dynamic, so if you’re trying to plan an aurora-hunting trip in the autumn, be sure to check the forecast and plan for weather that changes quickly… and is getting colder every day!

Northern Lights in Greenland - Mads Pihl - Visit GreenlandPhoto © Mads Pihl, Visit Greenland

Winter (November to April)

The long winter season is understandably the best opportunity to see the northern lights. From the dark days of November through the faintly less-dark days of April, you can feel confident that if the aurora is out and the skies are clear, you’ll probably be able to see them from any of the top places for aurora watching in Greenland.

While visiting Greenland in the winter months isn’t easy, and you’ll definitely need to pack layers for any northern lights viewing opportunities, it will be well worth it if you capture a view like those in this post!

Northern Lights in Greenland - Greenland Travel via FlickrPhoto: Greenland Travel via Flickr

Spring (May to June)

By the end of April, as Spring comes to Greenland, your chances of seeing the northern lights will become increasingly limited. Longer days and shorter nights make it less likely you’ll see the aurora than earlier in the year.

By the summer solstice, you can be pretty confident that the aurora will be invisible in the sky – but you do have a chance of seeing the midnight sun!

Northern Lights in Greenland - Ilulissat - Greenland Travel via Flickr
Photo: Greenland Travel via Flickr

Summer (June to September)

Summer, as you’d expect for most northern hemisphere destinations, is the wrong time of year to see the aurora – but it is the second-most popular season for visiting Greenland. If you want to see the colorful houses of Nuuk, sail the fjords between icebergs, or hike the mountains and valley, this is the time to visit.

The Best Places to See the Northern Lights in Greenland

Greenland is, for the most part, mostly uninhabited. That said, this plays to your advantage if you hope to see the aurora during the seasons where it’s possible in Greenland. Each of these communities is a great base to explore the countryside of Greenland and for planning aurora-viewing sessions.

Kangerlussuaq

Kangerlussuaq is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. This is especially true between the months of October and April. Its combination of ideal location, clear skies, and low population makes it an optimal spot for witnessing this incredible phenomenon.

Northern Lights in Greenland - Kangerlussuaq - Greenland Travel via Flickr
Photo: Greenland Travel via Flickr

You can catch an even better glimpse from the top of the Greenland Ice Cap. This massive glacier, which covers 80% of the country, is accessible in Kangerlussuaq. It provides one of the best views of the aurora borealis you can possibly see.

Sisimiut

Sisimiut is the second largest city in Greenland. This makes it a great place to visit for those who enjoy the comforts of a small town but aren’t afraid of roughing it also. Outdoor activities such as dog sledding and hiking are very popular here.

Northern Lights in Greenland - Sisimiut 2 - Greenland Travel via Flickr
Photo: Greenland Travel via Flickr

It’s in this regard that you’re most likely to see the Northern Lights. To improve your chances of seeing them, you’ll want to go outside of the city on a night between September or March. Once you’re away from the city lights, you have a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis.

Ilulissat

Ilulissat is the most popular tourist destination in Greenland thanks to the Ilulissat Icefjord. This massive fjord was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 and is something anyone visiting town must see.

Northern Lights in Greenland - Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland 4
Photo © Mads Pihl, Visit Greenland

There are tours available in Ilulissat that allow you to see this amazing landmark while also getting a chance to see the Northern Lights. These tours take place in the Autumn months when the weather is still relatively warm. In this way, you get the chance to see two incredibly beautiful sites all at once.

Nuuk

Nuuk is the capital of Greenland. It is also its largest city. There are a great number of things to see and do here, making it a tourist’s dream come true.

Northern Lights in Greenland - Nuuk

One might think it would be impossible to see the Northern Lights from Nuuk because of light pollution. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. While you will have a better chance of seeing it if you go outside the city, you don’t have to travel as far as you might think. In fact, you have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights on any dark night during the months of December or January.

Kulusuk

On the other end of the spectrum is Kulusuk, a small village with a population of 250. Despite its small size, it’s still a popular tourist destination because of the Kulusuk Airport. It’s also a good place to have the quintessential Greenland experience with hiking, dog sledding, and fishing being popular activities.

Northern Lights in Greenland - Kulusuk - Nick Russill via Flickr
Photo: Nick Russill via Flickr

Kulusuk is also among the best spots in Greenland to view the Northern Lights in the winter months. There are dog sledding tours available that will take you deep into the heart of Eastern Greenland where you have a great chance of seeing the aurora borealis.

Tasiilaq

With a population of 2000, Tasiilaq is the largest city on the eastern coast of Greenland. In this city, you get the best of both worlds. Not only do you get the amazing outdoor adventures you’d expect from Greenland, you also get an excellent arts and crafts scene.

Northern Lights in Greenland - Tasiilaq - Nick Russill via Flickr
Photo: Nick Russill via Flickr

And of course, Eastern Greenland in the wintertime is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. As with Kulusuk, you can go on dog sledding tours that will take you to some of the best spots for viewing this amazing natural wonder.

How to See the Aurora in Greenland

Northern Lights in Greenland - Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland 5
Photo © Mads Pihl, Visit Greenland

1. Plan Your Trip at the Right Time of Year

As you may have guessed from the section on what time of year to see the aurora in Greenland, there are seasons in which you can see the northern lights (autumn and winter) and seasons when you can’t (spring and summer). If the goal of your trip to Greenland is to see the northern lights, you’ll need to plan your trip between September and April.

2. Check the Forecast – But Be Flexible

While it’s possible to see the aurora on any clear night when there’s solar activity, you’ll need to check the forecast before bundling up and heading out to try and see the greenish glow in the sky. Service Aurora has a live aurora forecast that you can check each evening; they also have a three-day forecast to give you a sense for what future nights might hold.

3. Bring the Right Gear

In Greenland, average temperatures range from 32°F (0°C) in early autumn to as cold as 5°F (-15°C) in the heart of winter. This means you’ll need to pack plenty of winter gear and layers to be able to head out for a few hours of aurora viewing. Most tour providers (if you choose to book a guided tour) will provide you with a list of suggested items to pack; if you aren’t sure, a local sporting goods store can help you choose the gear that’s right for a Greenland winter trip.

4. Be Patient

Once you head out to see the northern lights, you may be rewarded right away. On the other hand, many travelers have had to wait hours, or even several nights, before seeing the aurora. Being patient is key; this is one of nature’s great wonders and it doesn’t show up for anyone’s schedule.

5. Experience Awe

Once you see the aurora, don’t be surprised if it leaves you speechless. It happens to us still, even as many times as we’ve seen it!

Popular Day Trips & Tours to See the Northern Lights

Northern Lights in Greenland - Hotel Ranga - Greenland Travel via Flickr
Photo: Greenland Travel via Flickr

Because the northern lights are one of the main reasons people visit Greenland (and especially during the winter), there are many tours available if you want to book a guided itinerary. Here are some of the top options:

This is just the tip of the iceberg, Greenland pun intended. ❄😉

Tips on Photographing Aurora

If you want pictures like the ones in this post from your own trip to Greenland, here are some tips.

  • Set your camera in manual mode. You’ll need to control the technical aspects of your camera to get the right exposure in your photo.
  • Set your ISO to 1600-3200. You’ll need a high sensitivity (high ISO) to be able to capture the colors of the aurora.
  • Set your aperture to 1.8-3.0. A low F-stop will ensure you capture enough light in your photo.
  • Set your shutter speed at 15-20 seconds. If you set your shutter to be open between 15 and 20 seconds, you’ll be able to see the stars and northern lights in your photo, but still see clear stars in the night sky without star trails.
  • Use a tripod, remote, and have extra batteries on hand. Similar to our tips for astrophotography, you’ll need to bring some extra gear to ensure your camera is stable and has enough power in the cold winter air.

Featured Photo © Mads Pihl, Visit Greenland