Jane’s method for finding the Aurora Borealis
One of my current passions is to find and photograph the Northern Lights! I traveled to Iceland in 2016 and northern Norway/Finland in 2017 to do this.
In order to see the northern lights, you need a few things:
1. A clear sky
2. To be far enough north that they are visible
3. Ideally, active aurora, because those are much more interesting to watch
Things that surprise me about the Aurora:
Auroras look really different to the naked eye than they do to the camera. Ones that are not particularly impressive to the naked eye turn into splendid photographs with longer exposures. This is especially true of color… most auroras I’ve seen seem mostly white, maybe a bit yellow or green, with hints of purple that are so faint I think it might be wishful thinking. In my photographs, however, more colors are visible, especially when you use photoshop to bring them out. (I don’t really like photoshopping my pictures, so most of my photos here are what my camera sees without any help.
Auroras change from second to second. They could be near invisible one minute, and bright a few minutes later. They come and go, they dance and flicker and flow across the sky.
The sky in northern parts of the world usually has a faint green glow if you take a long exposure .
My favorite Aurora websites:
- University of Alaska Geophysical Institute 28 day aurora forecast
- Good for rough estimate of when the aurora are going to be active; also shows moon stages. Good for planning travel if you want to make a trip in the next month.
- Aurora service (they have websites for US, Europe, and Australia
- A great one stop shop for figuring out what’s going on in the sky. It has estimates of Kp strength in 3 hour blocks, in addition to links to the current Ovation model, and a bunch of solar wind data. (They also do tours in Finland!)
- NOAA’s Ovation models (30 minute) (3 Day)
- University of Alaska Geophysical Institute Aurora Forecast
- I like this site because it gives you a good understanding of how far south the aurora may be seen at the current Kp number
And now the hard part – finding clear sky:
You need mostly clear skies to get a good view of the Aurora, as they are in the upper atmosphere, above the clouds. I find that each country has its own weather maps that can be used to predict.
- Iceland (handy site has both Kp and cloud cover in the same place!)
- World cloud cover map
And the fun part – getting to your clear sky:
The aurora are usually not so bright as to be able to overcome city lights, so your best bet to see them is to get out of the city. In places where aurora are common, there are a LOT of tours that will load you on a bus and take you somewhere dark. Those are always an option, but with maps and a knowledge of when your aurora are going to be strong a rental car and google maps can be just as good (and no crowds!)
On my trip to Norway in 2017, the forecast predicted Kp6 for the day after I arrived, but all the weather maps said it would be cloudy near where I was staying in Tromso, and all of the surrounding region. I weighed my options, decided I really wanted to see if I could see this solar storm, so I studied the cloud cover maps carefully, saw that there might be an opening in the clouds near Kautokeino and planned a little road trip to go there. It was 7-8 hours of driving each way, and I got to drive through Finland! (Did you know that Finland is in a different timezone from Norway, and it is very confusing to drive through it when your phone updates time automatically.) I saw the Aurora, it was really nice, and I got to experience Norwegian and Finnish Lapland (beautiful!), -25C temperatures, and my very first flat tire.