What nobody tells you about the northern lights

Do you want to see the northern lights? Well you should book now for the coming season or risk missing out! Here’s why: –

The elusive aurora borealis is ever present. It’s literally always there. So why is it so hard to see?

Well, first of all you need to be at a pole. The northern polar latitudes are for more accessible than the south, so picking a good spot in Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and other such places is the starting point. But then what?

Next up, it must be dark. And I mean really dark! Since the Arctic experiences ‘Arctic Sun’ during the summer, with the sun spending a showtime bobbing up and down in the sky but never actually setting, while only ducking slightly under the horizon before and after this phenomena, that’s basically half the year written off already. To see the lights, head north during winter! What next?

Well there are other sources of light that will shine brighter than the aurora, so you need to head out of town to somewhere remote. While it is possible both to shoot and see the lights from in town, you stand a far higher chance of you find a nice, dark spot in the middle of nowhere. Take a look: –

I made the photo above in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. While the aurora was visible over the tiny city, the light pollution meant I was shooting for the foreground and far less of the aurora shone through my lens compared to this image below which I made in the Westfjords of Iceland, where the only other light source was the Milky Way.

So, you’ve found a dark spot in the middle of nowhere, but what else do you need? Visibility! Our atmosphere is a busy place. While there are particles flying though space creating nature’s most dazzling light show by crashing into particles within our own ionosphere right above our heads, it’s actually not as close as it looks. The northern lights are actually happening between 100 and 200 miles up! There’s a lot to get in the way between here and there! Most importantly are the clouds, of course. We have a huge array of clouds that form over us. Whilst it’s important to check the local weather service where you are, which will always give a cloud forecast in polar regions at lower, middle and upper levels, it’s also worth taking some time to take note of what the clouds do where you are. Perhaps they form as a haze over the sea and dissipate over land, of maybe they hold onto a mountain peak and don’t leave its side. Maybe even they form in an area of differing pressure in a valley. If you notice these kinds of things happening, take what you’ve learned from your observations and get away from those obstructive clouds. They may be the sole thing getting between you and the lights!

You may have heard people say that it must be sub-zero for the lights to come out. That’s not true, it can’t be. We already know the aurora is so far above us that our temperature can’t possibly affect them. The correlation between the cold and the aurora comes from the fact that it must be winter for darkness, and that below zero there’s less chance of clouds because the water vapour that makes them would freeze.

So what else? Can the aurora be predicted? Absolutely! There’s a whole range of apps and services out there to help you track where the aurora will be, and when, and how strong! Personally I find the best by far to be aurora-service.eu which gives real time data, maps, and a forecast interpreted from that data by a real life northern life expert on the Finnish-Norwegian border. But now we have the foundations of aurora hunting, there’s one last thing. I said up top that you should book now or risk missing out. I’m not even joking, check this out: –

The northern lights come from the sun. Our sun speed out a huge amount of particles into space. Solar storms and solar winds carry them at ridiculous speeds towards us and our magnetic poles direct them from the equator to the north and south poles where they enter the ionosphere and work their beautiful magic. The thing is, these solar storms occur according to a cycle, and that cycle is observable and has been studied and forecast. 2014 was a peak year in the cycle, and 2025 is the next peak year, known correctly as a Solar Maximum. 2020 is right about bottom of the pile, so if you want to tick the northern lights off your bucket list, book a trip north this season from September 2018 to March 2019 and be prepared to put your newfound aurora hunting skills to the test!

This doesn’t mean you won’t see the aurora. It means it’ll be harder or they’ll be weaker! For the best odds head as far north as possible close to the North Pole where the aurora persists. My best and longest light show was while I was standing in Adventdalen in Svalbard way up at 78° N. I was just finishing my burger when I heard somebody come in and say that the lights were out already. It was barely dark, and so I quickly scrambled my gear together and headed into the valley, mindful of the risk of being eaten by a polar bear. I set up and for over an hour I took shot after shot after shot, having the time to compose properly, and even grab a few northern lights selfies.

So now you know 😉

Much love

Dave

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