Tips to see the Northern Lights
So you have travelled somewhere far away from home at great expense and the highlight of you trip is to see the spectacular northern lights (aurora borealis) dancing in the sky. You have done everything right but you end up staring at a cloudy sky and your trip is ruined! I have been in this situation three times and only once have I actually managed to see the northern lights. Firstly in Iceland and then in Tromso in Norway I went for the northern lights and both times I left disappointed. I left the country being teased by the postcards in the airport. Only on my third go at them in Greenland did I get to see them in the flesh. It’s amazing how a massive fireball 92 million miles away sending charged particles across space can create something so beautiful (a brief science explanation at the end). Hopefully from my mistakes and bad luck you will learn how to avoid the pitfalls I fell into and be successful the first time. Here are my tips to see the northern lights.
Have other activities planned
This is the most important and the biggest lesson I took out of my failed trips. DO NOT make seeing the northern lights the only thing on your itinerary. They are very unpredictable and even if you know a solar flare went off the day before and are in a perfect spot in the Arctic…….it could be cloudy and you will still see nothing. On my first trip we planned a trip around the ring road of Iceland. Each day I went out to see if I could see anything only for it to be cloudy all week. I didn’t see the northern lights but we still had a great time and wasn’t disappointed that we didn’t see some dancing curtains. On the other hand when I went to Tromso for new years, our only activity was to see the northern lights (although the new year’s fireworks were cool) and with only 2hrs of light and it snowing it meant we spent almost the entire trip indoors. This was not what we had expected and we were very disappointed on our return. We did get into the Arctic Sea though in the snow for something to do! And yes, it was very cold!
If you are to take anything from this post on the northern lights just make sure that the northern lights are only part of your trip. Most activities on any trip are during the day and the northern lights happen at night so it is very easy to have them as a night activity. It’s even easier if you are not in a city then you can just walk for 5min away from the lights and you can see them yourself with no extra help.
Where and When to see the Northern Lights
So you need to pick a place? So if you happen to be living in the northern hemisphere then the best places to see them are somewhere close-ish to the Arctic Circle or north of it. This includes Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Russia and Scandinavia. Having said this though on solar storms it has been possible to see them much further south but you couldn’t plan your holidays based on this. The southern lights (Aurora Australis) can also be seen near Antarctica but obviously this is much harder and expensive to get to.
The best months of the year to see the northern lights are around March and October although they happen all during the year. Like anything to do with the sun this isn’t an exact science. The sun has a 7 year cycle which peaks around 2013/14 so this year is a good year to plan on seeing them. Aurora Borealis happens all year round but due to the long days of daylight during the summer in the far north they cannot be seen because of the brightness of the sun’s light so this rules out the summer months.
You are now in the right country in the right month and your third task is to find somewhere with as little artificial light as possible. In other words, far away from a city. Chances are you will be if you are this far north so if in a small town or village a short drive or a 10min walk can bring you away from the lights so the black sky is visible. Black, cloudless sky is what you want. Also be wary of a full moon as its brightness can obscure some of the northern lights.
Predicting the Lights: The northern lights are very hard to predict far in advance. Most reliable data comes in approximately 3 day forecasts. Local tourist information and guides should know better but some websites that may be of use are www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast which has a scale from 1-10 and maps for Europe and North America as well as www.softservenews.com/Aurora.htm
Be prepared for cold/unpredictable weather
As mentioned the best time of the year is the coldest 6 months and by definition you are going to be generally somewhere very cold. Although you may have enough clothes if the weather stays the same make sure that you are prepared for weather to deteriorate. I am not saying you need to bring a tent and a packed lunch each time you leave the house but if you are in a strange village in Greenland don’t walk for 30min away from the town up a mountain at 11pm to see the lights because if the weather gets really bad then you probably won’t be able to find your way back. If you need to get well outside a town then a tour might be the best option. For any smaller villages though a 5/10 min walk should get you away from the lights.
Remember that if you are going to be setting up a tripod for photos, standing around in minus 15 can get very cold very quickly. Either wrap up well or be prepared to do a lot of star jumps!
The more time the better
This is common sense but common sense is sometimes not that common. You have a much better chance of seeing the northern lights if you are on a trip for a week or two rather than for just one night. I have met people in several places that were there for one night to see the northern lights before getting a flight or whatever the next day. I know you cannot wait forever but if you are planning a trip and want to see the lights then make sure you give yourself the best opportunity to see them by being in the right area for the longest time.
Taking good photos
You finally see the lights and they look spectacular. You want your friends at home to see what you saw but when you try handheld pictures they just end up blurry! There are plenty of other sites out there for expert tips but I will give a few basic things to consider for non-photo experts. If you are like me and are not a professional photographer then you probably have a digital or a bridge camera but none of the fancy stuff. These cameras can also take very good photos of the northern lights depending on a few conditions.
- Make sure you have a tripod. It makes things so much easier. Even a small one will do. If you don’t then it will be very frustrating balancing it on a rock or stone etc to try and stop your image from becoming blurry.
- Any slightly advanced digital camera will have a manual setting where you can set the aperture speed. You need at least a setting of 30sec but anything longer than 60sec will be better. This will allow more light into the lens to get better pictures.
- Make sure it’s dark. I know I have mentioned it several times but dark means no street lights. The closer you are to street lights the more they will impact on your photos. The moon should also be taken into account. If there is a full moon then this light will overshadow the northern lights.
The Science bit – How the Northern Lights work
The northern (and southern) lights, Aurora Borealis and Australis, are caused by charged particles from the sun interacting with the earth’s atmosphere. The sun sends out a ‘solar wind’ in all directions which are gazillions of charged electrons bombing along at 1 million miles per hour. This happens all the time but are sent out with particular vigour when there are sunspots or a solar flare (ie. great aurora borealis). The earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere protect us humans at ground level from this onslaught of dangerous particles. The charged particles are sent down (attracted to) the earth’s magnetic field which run in lines between the north and south magnetic poles. These poles are close but not the same as the geographic poles.
When a charged electron hits an oxygen molecule in the earth’s atmosphere it produces a green or red colour depending on the height above earth. If it hits a nitrogen molecule then the colour is blue/violet depending on the height. As these molecules and electrons constantly hit and move according to the shifting magnetic lines we get this dance in the air.