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Aurora Borealis

Northern lights on your own

all seasons in one day -10 °C

About this text

Over the years of traveling, I've gotten so many questions about the Northern Lights (aka. Aurora Borealis) or the Southern lights (Aurora Australis), that I've tried to put as many answers as possible down in text. Incidentely. I'm going to refer to the lights as Northern lights or Aurora Borealis in the text, but I really mean both northern and southern lights. They are the same phenomena.

Also - I don't have any photos of the Borealis here yet. The text has been moved so many times, and the photos are lost. Hopefully I'll be able to get some new ones this winter (2018-2019)

What it is

The lights are a phenomena that occurs near the north or south of the globe, and looks like lights dancing high in the skies.

Some more scientific explanation: It's caused by charged particles from space colliding with the upper layer of the atmosphere (called ionosphere) exiting the atoms there. When the atoms are relaxed again they send out photons, that make up the light that we can see down on the ground. All, or nearly all, of the charged particles originates on the sun. They are being cast away from the sun. Most of it in big coronal mass ejections (fancy words for big lumps of mass being thrown out).

The solar winds - that is the stream of particles comming from the sun is deflected by the earths magnetic field, and funneled down at the northern and southern part of the globe. The intensity and frequency of these winds vary. Usually there are more wind and more intensity every 11 years. Thus we usually say that there are solar maximums every 11 years.

Occasonally the sun has bursts that send material out in space. These are socalled Coronal mass ejections (CME). They may cause a whole lot of problems for satelites and eletrical grid, but also more northern lights.

Apearance

The lightslooks most often like a curtain that is softly and diffusly glowing. The curtain is mostly in an east-western direction as they follow the isolines in the magnetic field. On the curtains its like thinner parallel rays streach at a steep angle towards the earth. The rays line up with the direction of the local magnetic field lines.

Colours

The colours you see are dependent on what the charged particles hit in the atmosphere. Northern light is mostly from electronically excited oxygen atoms. The green light (558 nm wavelenght) you see is mostly from "low" altitudes (100-150 km) and red (some 630 nm wavelenght) at higher (150-250 km) The lights from oxygen exited atoms are rarely from higher than 600 km. Sometimes you will see a mixture of lights from higher and lower orbit, resulting in a more pinkish or yellowish tint when the light enters the eye. Nitrogen atoms and nitrogen molecules also gives more pink light, and red at low altitudes. There are green lights comming from collisions between notrogen and charged particles, but at very high altitudes and quite faint blue (428 nm) and purple colours. Orange and other shades of red are possibilities but more rare colours.

When can I see it

General

The intensity of the northern lights vary. The source of particles is the sun. The activity on the sun varies with peak activity every 11 years or so. There was a peak in 2013, next peak wil thus be in 2024 etc. That doesn't mean that you can only see the lights at peak intensity, just that there are more lights during peak years.

Time of year

The Northern lights are present all year, but that doesn't mean you can see it. The lights varies in intensity during each day, but mainly it's just too bright during the summer to see the faint lights of the Aurora. You can only see the northern lights when it is dark outside.

The best month to see the lights are between November to February, and the more towards the middle of that period the better.

Moonless days are better than full moon. Basically the less light other than light from the Aurora there is, the better. Mind you that doesn't mean that you cannot see the lights during moonlit nights.

Time of day

Assuming you're in the arctic during winter, there is still some things to consider to improve your chances of actually seeing the lights. Although the arctic night lasts all day, you'll find that the best chances to see the lights are between 18:00 and 06:00 at night (that's 6 pm to 6 am for those of you who still can't figure out proper timekeeping). That's because the sun is on the opposite side of the earth during this time period. That is also the reason that the time period with the most intensity is around solar midnight. Northern lights almost always comes in clumps of bursts of extremely varying length (from seconds to over an hour). If you know the chances of lights are high, and you can't see any lights, it might be beneficial to wait a bit. At the same time: If you've already seen one burst, chances are you'll be able to see another in a short while.

Now for the most important thing: You have to have clear skies to see the lights. If it's cloudy it's like having a blanket between you and the lights. Study the weather forecast really well. Don't be the guy that comes to the Arctic at solar maximum, at winter during midnight, away from any light source, with warm comfortable clothing, your DSLR set up all ready to shoot, and seeing only clouds.

Where can I see it

Countries

Generally: Go far north. The lights are usually situated in an oval pattern around the magnetic north pole. The shape and direction of this pattern changes dynamically with the solar wind, and the position of the sun in reference to Earth. As a general rule: Go as far north as possible. Although you can be lucky and see the lights at latitudes of Oslo (59 deg. North) or even further south, you're really hoping to win the lottery. To even out your odds go to Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Greenland Northern Canada, Alaska or North-western Russia. The magnetic pole being further down towards Canada, you can in fact see the lights at lower latitudes in Northern America than in Europe.

I'm not forgetting Asia here: It's just that the places you need to go to see northern lights in Asia is so uninhabited and inaccessible to make it practically not viable.

Aurora Australis is visible from Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. Most of the tips I write about here are applicable for the Southern lights as well, except that you will need weather forecasts for the southern hemisphere.

Good location

Although you can see the lights while in an arctic town such as Tromsø, there are steps you can take to better your chances.
Get away from light sources (Towns, Trafficked roads)
Get away from the coast - Weather patterns are usually shifting the most at the coast. Hence there's usually more clouds at the coast. Go inland is my best tip.

Other considerations

Should I consider joining a tour group or contact guides?
You can, but you definitely don't have to. The positive thing about such groups is that you don't have to think about all the small stuff like transportation, reading weather forecasts etc. it's all done for you. However, in my opinion I don't think they are worth the money. Particularly where I live (Tromsø) they are extraordinarily expensive, and you're stuck in a group. I think it's better to organize everything for yourself. Rent a car to drive you inland, look for good foregrounds.

Weather
The time when and the time where the lights are visible dictate that it can be cold. Temperatures Im used to are between -10 and -25 degrees centigrade. In other words: Layer up with clothes. Keep your camera batteries warm and your equipment dry. You will probably encounter snow and Ice, so good boots is a must, and spikes on tripods is almost a necessity.

Wind is always to clothe yourselves for during the winter.

Weather 2
You have to study the weather forecast. Every consideration is for nothing if it’s cloudy

Food
Yes food - You will probably be gone for a few hours and you will get hungry. Also bring a thermos with some hot beverage. Your body will thank you.

Equipment
Your best equipment is patience. The lights does not care about your schedule. It simply does its thing.

Light
It's going to be dark, so having some kind of light is a good idea. Remember: It's probably also cold, so your mobile phone battery will be depleted quickly. I'd recommend a headlamp. It takes the human eye up to a quarter of an hour to be able to see in dark conditions, so have that in mind when planning the inituary.

Mobile Apps
I haven't tried every one of these apps. But they might be worth a try. Also: I haven't checked if all of them are available on both platforms or not, and I know there are a few of them that are available for both iOS and Android. I don't have an Android phone, so I can't say anything on how well the apps behave. I have tried some of the iOS versions, and must say that they mostly work out fine, but in the end it's only a forecast for the possibilities of seeing the Aurora.

for all mobile operative systems
• http://aurora-alerts.com/
• Auroracast for Android https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.pa.auroracast or iOS https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/aurora-borealis-forecast/id1270592946?ls=1&mt=8
• Tintancinc http://www.tinacinc.com/auroraforecast/

For iOS devices
https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/my-aurora-forecast-alerts/id1073082439?mt=8

For Android devices
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.jrustonapps.myauroraforecast&hl=en

Other resourses
• The Geophysical institute of Alaska University Fairbanks has a forecast service. The webpage for the forecast is www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast, and you’ll find forecasts for a few days ahead of time.
• Spaceweather (www.spaceweather.com) Usually writes if there is something going on, or expected to happen. They also have a free subscribtion sending you emails warning of solar winds.
• www.aurorahunter.com/aurora-prediction.php is a webpage suitable for predicting when you might see the lights.
• Another site which displays Aurora forecasts from NASA is www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/. The data here is American, but the site focuses on the European continent.
Reading the forecasts.
Looking at most Aurora forecasts, you'll come across something called Kp. That is a number describing the chances of seeing the lights. A Kp of 3 corresponds to low levels of geomagnetic activity, while a Kp of 9 represents high levels of geomagnetic activity. Consequently a higher number means a better chance of spotting some lights.

Weather forecast
Local weather services are an absolute must. Here's a few of the more useful ones:
• Norway: http://www.yr.no. English translation on every page, and the forecasts are generally thought to be very accurate. Also has weather forecasts for most of the world, but statistical data for only a few places outside Norway.
• Sweden: http://www.smhi.se Swedish metrological service (the forecast pages are in Swedish only, but intuitive)
• Canada: https://weather.gc.ca/
• Alaska and the rest of the US: http://www.weather.gov/
• Russia: http://www.meteoinfo.ru/ (English version sometimes work)

Photoequipment
A camera phone simply will not render good results here while using the standard camera apps. I'm not against people taking photos with mobile phones, but, being interested in photography myself I can truly say that my iPhone doesn't help me taking good pictures of the northern lights - I've tried. You can get camera apps that lets you control the ISO levels and the shutter time. That will help, but the sensor is still very small for this job. The pictures I got are eighter way to dark or way to grainy. I'll talk about actually photographing the lights bellow. However I'm going to list the equipment here:
• A good camera with as large a sensor as possible (read DSLR, probable full format)
• A tripod - Sturdy as possible. Don't use Gorillapods or monopods.
• Something to keep the equipment from freezing and the battery from being too cold. I've found that having a padded camera bags with handwarmers work.
• A mechanical pencil or stylus if you're wearing gloves. Buttons can be tough to handle with gloves on.
• Something to wipe of condensation. In particulary on stuff that comes near to your face (you breathe, and the condensation sets in when that air hits your camera equipment)
• Treat any googles or spectacles with antifog - but stay of the camera lenses.

How can I take photos of the Northern Lights

How to take still photos of the lights
It's quite possible to take good still images of the northern lights. You will need a long shutter time to collect enough lights. Remember though that a shutter time longer than 5-6 seconds will result in noticeable star trails. You will probably need to bump your ISO up quite a bit. A wide open aperture is an absolute must. Focus should be at infinity. A large format sensor is best in order to catch as much of the light as possible.

A long shutter time means you’ll need a sturdy tripod. In this scenario there is simply no substitute for a good tripod. In fact I'd say that photographing Northern lights without a proper tripod is impossible.

If you want people in the picture and you're using really long shutter times. Set it up with a fill flash, so that they are only illuminated for a short time, then ask them to quickly remove themselves.

Turn off autofocus. Autofocus needs light to be able to adjust the focus. You will not have enough for that. I always prefer a wider angle lens, but that is a matter of preference. Remember that it can be difficult to point the camera in the right way if your lens is too long (i.e. too much tele)

Remember to overexpose slightly. That will help you in the post processing of your images.

Shoot RAW whenever possible.

I use White balance of 3000 K, but you can also use daylight settings. That wil make any ground colour look a little orange. If you're shooting RAW it really doesn't matter what whitebalance you're using. Correcting and choosing a whitebalance is a matter of a single click on the computer.

And one final thing about photograhy: Remember that all the best photographers started out knowing nothing, but still tried.

How can I film the Aurora Borealis

This might come as a surprise for some of you, but there isn’t man videos out there that are normal speed videos of Aurora borealis. Most of the beautiful dancing lights on video are time lapses, i.e. long shutter time stills played like a video. Live speed videos without this will truly cost the shirt of our back or be grainy because they have to bump the ISO up to astronomical numbers. I recommend making a time lapse video. That way you can use a long shutter time and still get a video. If you still want to have a normal speed video, you’ll end up with a dull image with something slowly moving in the dark.

Whether you're shooting time-lapse or not. If you're planning on moving the camera during the shot, you have to have some panning equipment to make it look acceptable. Don't think you can just move your camera by hand. That will not result in any good videos at all. Speaking from experience here.

Stories about the northern lights

History

History about a natural phenomenon that surely was present before life on earth began?! Of course not. That's not the history I want to tell. More the history where the lights have played a role in human history.

An aurora was described by the Greek explorer Pytheas in the 300s BC, and Seneca wrote about it in his Naturales Quaestiones. He wrote that the lights were bright enough for cohort from an army stationed nearby the town Ostia galloped to help with what they thought was a fire.

It's possible that Pliny the Elder refers to the Aurora in his Natural History, as falling red flames and daylight in the night. This however is a little too vague for me.

In 1741 Anders Celsius and Olof Hjorter observed rythmic movements of compass needles due to an aurora in Uppsala. They used this observation to theorize that magnetic storms are responsible for compass fluctuations.

A Japanese diary was found in 2017. Written in 1770 there was a depiction of auroras above the Japanese capital of Kyoto. The placement suggest the storm was 7% larger than the Carrington event. A solar storm that affected telegraph networks on 28 August and 2 September 1859. The latter being significant because it was the first time in history when auroral activity and electricity was unambiguously linked. The power induced by the storm was sufficient to to allow for continued communication between two operators in Boston and Portland without any power supply. Other telegraph lines where severely hampered in their attempts to communicate.
From the Boston Traveler in 1859:
Boston operator (to Portland operator): "Please cut off your battery [power source] entirely for fifteen minutes."
Portland operator: "Will do so. It is now disconnected."
Boston: "Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?"
Portland: "Better than with our batteries on. – Current comes and goes gradually."
Boston: "My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble."
Portland: "Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?"
Boston: "Yes. Go ahead."

Folklore and explanations

'Aurora borealis', the lights of the northern hemisphere, means 'dawn of the north'. 'Aurora australis' means 'dawn of the south'. In Roman myths, Aurora was the goddess of the dawn.

Many cultural groups have legends about the lights. In medieval times, the occurrences of auroral displays were seen as harbingers of war or famine. The Maori of New Zealand shared a belief with many northern people of Europe and North America that the lights were reflections from torches or campfires. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed that the lights indicated the location of manabai'wok (giants) who were the spirits of great hunters and fishermen. The Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted: the seals, salmon, deer and beluga whales. Other aboriginal peoples believed that the lights were the spirits of their people.
The Australian Aboriginal Gunditjamara people called auroras puae buae (ashes), and the Gunai people thought auroras were bushfires in the spirit world. The Dieri people (South Australia) say that auroras are en evil spirit called kootchee that's spreading a large fire. The Ngarrindjeri people (South Australia) and the aboriginal people in southwest Queensland thought that the aurora was campfires in the spirit world.
Benjamin Franklin theorized that the aurora was caused by eletrical charges in the polar region combined with moist air condensed as charged snow.

The American Chipewyan Dene thought that bright auroras meant that their deceased friends were happy. They saw the likeness between the aurora and the sparks produced when stroking caribou fur.

During the American civil war a aurora was visible over Fredricksburg on the night after the battle. The confederate army took this as a sign of good fortune.

Scientists

The term aurora borealis was coined by Galileo in 1619. He used the Roman goddess of dawn and the Greek name for the northern wind.
Scientists have suspected a connection between sunspots and the northern lights since around the 1880s, but wasn't aware of the electrons and protons from the sun in the solar wind before the 1950´s. Loomis in 1860, Fritz in 1881 and Tromholt in 1882 established that the aurora appeared mainly in the auroral zone. The zone is typically 3° to 6° wide in latitude and between 10° and 20° from the geomagnetic poles.
The Norwegian mathemtician Carl Størmer and cllegues used cameras to triangulate more than 12 000 auroras and find their altitudes. They discovered that the lights were produced between 90 and 150 km above the ground, although sometimes as high as 1000 km. Incidentely the same Stormer was. A pioneer in using cameras to candidly photographing people on the streets. He photographed Henrik Ibsen and Kristian Birkeland this way. Apparently Birkeland was not amused. The same Birkeland laid the foundation of our current understanding of geomagnetism and polar auroras. In Norway he is best known for fixing nitrogen from sir in the BirkelandlllæææEyde process. That process was important for the making of nitrogen based fertilizer by Norsk Hydro.

Posted by Skandinavisk 02:34 Archived in Norway Tagged night alaska sweden finland canada norway russia arctic northern_lights antarctic aurora_borealis aurora_australis photo_equipment photo_tips northern_light northern_norway

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Thanks for your story and advice!

by Vic_IV

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