For most of our guests, having a chance to see the auroras is one of the main reasons to make the journey up here. But what exactly are these dancing night lights, and when exactly can you see them? The many questions I was asked this winter made it clear that many people don’t really know what the auroras are, and come under the false impression that you will automatically see them as long as you are north enough. Unfortunately, to see the auroras one needs a good combination of good weather and good solar activity. In other words, you need to be a little bit lucky if you want to see an unforgettable display during your visit. With some knowledge in mind however, you can improve the timing of your trip and increase your chances.
Can you only see the auroras when it is cold outside? Can you see the auroras every night? Can you also see the auroras in the summer? The answer to all of these is no. So when can you see them then? And at what time? Well, it depends. To make it somewhat more clear, read on and learn:
The Inevitable Truth about the Northern Lights
1. What are the auroras?
Basically, the auroras are created by disturbances in our Earth’s magnetic field caused by highly charged solar particles. At the peak of the solar cycle (the 11-year period over which the sun experiences a very active period, a peak point, and a very calm period, a low point) the sun has high magnetic activity. During a peak, the sun releases energy through solar flares and coronal mass ejections. When energy is released, enormous amounts of ions, atoms and electrons, all high on energy, are released into space and carried away with the solar wind. When the eruption is facing Earthwards, these particles are blown towards our planet and trapped in our magnetic field. Without the magnetic field, we could not be living on our planet, as these highly radioactive materials would make life impossible.
As the Earth is a dipole, the magnetic field cuts through both poles and runs vertically through the planet. At the surface, it bends to form an ellipse-like figure around the planet. Due to this bend, the magnetic field cuts through the atmosphere at high latitudes.Where the field lines connect to the poles, the magnetic field is at its strongest, so the strongest points also lie at high latitudes. The highly energised particles trapped in the magnetic field start colliding with the gasses in our atmosphere, which become so energised that they start glowing. This is what creates the northern lights and that is why you can see it at certain latitudes, and why you are very unlikely to see something around the equator. You can see the charged particles travelling through our atmosphere with the solar wind, which is why the auroras dance. The different colours are produced by collisions with different gas atoms at different altitudes in the atmosphere.
2. When can I see the auroras?
First of all, you need to have some solar activity going on, otherwise the magnetic field will remain undisturbed and the sky will remain pitch black. But even when you have some, it is pretty impossible to predict when exactly the northern lights will appear in the sky. They have no fixed time and can appear anywhere during darkness hours. Sometimes they will show the whole night, sometimes one short beam is all you get, sometimes they come and go. And even if there is some activity, it is still no guarantee that something will show up. So if you really want to get a good sight and a good picture, you will need to bring some patience with you, and some good gear to protect yourself against the cold.
Furthermore, two basic circumstances need to be met: the sky has to be clear, and it has to be dark.
This is where the misconception comes from that you can only see the auroras when it is cold outside. When it is cold, the sky is often clear, hence you have a good chance of seeing something. But it is not a prerequisite: lately the temperatures here have been around -5 at night but the sky has been clear, so we’ve seen some nice northern lights. So if it doesn’t have to be cold or winter, can you also see them in summer? Seeing the northern lights during summer is very unlikely because at this latitude it simply does not get dark enough during most of the summer season. Any light will immediately weaken a display, so head out of villages and cities to dark, open spaces with a good view over the northern sky.
3. The auroras in popular tales
The northern lights have always fascinated us and have for long been an important part of the culture of northern peoples. Before science explained this wonderful phenomenon, people made up legends and tales for themselves to understand why the sky would suddenly light up all green, red and blue during the night. Sometimes people would simply give a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meaning to them, explaining that a display announced the end of winter, the approach of a snow storm, the coming of better weather, etc.
The Inuit people living in North America and Greenland believed that when the northern lights where in the sky, their forefathers would be playing football with a giant walrus skull. In Finland, the population believed that the world was created by a giant red fox and this fox was running through the sky at night, creating the northern lights. The Sami people in Sweden and Norway said that the northern lights were old reindeer running across the sky, reindeer that had died a long time ago. And finally, in Iceland people used to believe that the northern lights was bewitched, and that parents had to hide their children to make sure they were not kidnapped by the witches.
4. Photographing the aurora
The conditions look good, and you would like to head out to make some mind-blowing aurora pictures. So how do you do that? You will need a tripod and a camera that allows you to set long exposure times.
The tripod is necessary as it is pretty much impossible to keep your camera perfectly still for several seconds. In case you don’t have it, you can of course try to use a rock or a branch or whatever you can find in your surroundings, but you will find that a tripod is quite convenient if you don’t want to lie down in the snow and will give you much sharper pictures.
The ideal camera is an SLR with a fast (large aperture) lens. Some digital cameras that have advanced settings will do the trick as well, but the image quality of an SLR is simply higher and you can play around with the settings much more than on most digital point-and-shoot or bridge cameras. Start with lowering the brightness of the screen so the light doesn’t disturb your night view too much. Take off any filters you have on the ring, as they might result in concentric circles on your picture. You will have to manually focus your lens, as the autofocus will not have enough light or contrast to find a focus point. If you have a focus ring on the lens, put it on the infinite setting. If not, you will have to look through the viewer and see if you can figure out if it is sharp or not. After some go’s you will find the right focus setting.
Now that we have the basics set up, it is good to put your white balance on daylight or automatic for night shots. Set your aperture to the largest setting you can have. You will already need long exposure times and you can use all of the light your lens can capture. Then, we it comes to ISO and shutter speed, you will have to find a compromise you personally like. Some people like to have a very high ISO and work with short shutter speeds (from a couple to ten seconds) so the lights are sharper and the aurora movements become less blurred. Personally, I like to minimise the noise so I keep my ISO a bit lower (at around 800) and work with longer exposure times (from ten up to thirty seconds). The lights become more dispersed in the sky if you keep the shutter open very long, but you still get a good grasp of the movements and a smoother image.
Keep in mind that if you buy a camera, most of the image quality comes from the lens. It is better to invest more money in your lenses than in your camera body, and you will find a good lens very useful when trying to capture the northern lights. Good hunting!