Northern Lights For Dummies
Updated: Nov 8, 2021
The northern lights seem to be everywhere on social media these days. With the recent elevated solar activity - tell me about it! I just came back from Arctic Norway right before it started - everyone living in high-enough latitudes is competing for the best shot.
A couple of decades ago, this breathtaking natural phenomenon was only accessible to just a few lucky people. Now, it´s easier than ever to try and see them.
But between the best locations, when to go, the weather forecast, and the more scientific details such as the kp-index (kp what?), it's not always easy to know where to start.
So if northern lights have been on your bucket list for a while - and then COVID happened - keep reading for a few Northern Lights tips!
Where to go?
Where to see the Northern Lights?
So, Fairbanks, Alaska is apparently the Northern Lights Capital. But wait, Tromso, Norway also claims the be the Aurora Capital. Actually, so does Alta, Norway, which even boasts a Northern Lights cathedral. What about Rovaniemi, Finland, home of Santa? And Iceland, with all its magical activity and little people? Oh, and Abisko National Park, Sweden, with its "Blue Hole"? Yes, all arctic destinations are competing for the best Northern Lights! And while some locations might be better than others, as long as they are above or close to the Arctic circle, you have a good chance to see Lady Aurora - that is, if weather, solar activity and Mother Nature (or Viking divinities?) allow.
And if you don't live in the Arctic? Well, there might be some hope. When the kp-index is high enough, - if you don't know what that is, more on this below - the northern lights can be seen as far south as Scotland, Ireland, the northern United States and even sometimes England. And if you live in Spain, like me? Well... Not happening, sorry, but you can save for a Norwegian flight! If you don't need luxury conditions, Arctic travel is not as expensive as you might think. Or get a northern lights projector (joking).
What about the Southern Lights?
Well, I never got a chance to see them, but obviously they are a lot more difficult to hunt for since you would need to go to Antarctica. When the solar activity is intense enough, you could see them as far north as New Zealand's South island and Patagonia, but it's not an everyday occurrence.
The other lights
Finally, wherever you are, look for a dark place, away for light pollution. So, avoid cities and houses, if possible. If the moon is bright, faint northern lights will be harder to see, but there is nothing you can do about that. However, if the northern lights are intense, a bright, full moon will provide an amazing lighting for a beautiful backdrop - and for selfies or pictures of other people! If you have a car, look for the best cloud coverage conditions and open spaces - for example beaches, fields, frozen lakes or the top of a mountain if you feel adventurous!
Lady Aurora and Mister Weather
One key factor which is often overlooked is weather, especially if you don't have a lot of time. Indeed, Arctic weather is unpredictable and unstable. So, if you are only there for a few days, you might have clouds or snow all the time and never see a clear sky. For example, coastal Northern Norway provides the right latitude and an incredible backdrop for the northern lights. However, weather is a lot more unstable than inland. The same applies for Iceland.
The cold factor is also extremely important, especially if you don't have a car. Indeed, it's not the same to wait hours outside at -30 Cº than at 5 Cº. And if you're by the sea, don't forget the lovely wind chill!
When to go?
And this is why fall is my favorite season for northern lights watching. It's not freezing cold yet, so you can spend hours outside hunting for the most magical natural phenomenon there is. And while darkness is the only element that matters for northern lights, I've always seen the most intense northern lights in fall. Besides, there is scientific evidence showing that the northern lights are more intense around the fall and spring equinoxes. In spring though, there is already too much daylight at these latitudes.
In a nutshell, anytime is good as long as there is darkness (usually between September and March/April depending on the destination), but I would recommend fall. That being said, I saw a very intense aurora in Fairbanks, Alaska at the end of August, although I had to wait til 1am for astronomical night.
And as far as time is concerned, statistically, most auroras appear between 10pm and 2pm. Again, statistically, as they might appear virtually anytime! I saw northern lights at 4pm in January in Swedish Lapland and at 3am in Alaska in August.
Northern lights apps
Alright, so you know where to go and when to go. Now, you just have to wait and hope for good luck. Well... there is something else that might help. Technology of course! While the northern lights are a natural phenomenon that cannot be 100% predicted, they are some technical data to look out for. And if your are not an astronomer or northern lights photographer, some apps make your life easier with simple tables and maps.
There are many on the market, but based on my experience, I recommend the free app My Aurora Forecast. It will show you data like the expected kp-index, the ovation auroral and the cloud coverage based on your location. If to you, "kp-index" and "ovation auroral" sound like Chinese to me, I encourage you to read this article which explains the key data in a very simple way. It's worth reading a bit on the northern lights to understand why they happen... and to show off at your next party: "Yeah, so we saw the northern lights in Lapland but the kp-index was a little low..." To go back to the app, it also sends you free alerts when the aurora is expected to be active at your location.
Even if the kp-index is low, the weather is not great and the ovation auroral is small, I still encourage you to try. Mother Nature might surprise you! In the same way, you might have a super clear sky and a high kp and not see anything at all. It wouldn't be magical otherwise, right?
Northern lights photography
If you are lucky enough to see the northern lights, you will probably want to immortalize the moment with some pictures. Ok, so before you do anything: enjoy!!! And then yes, take pictures, you're gonna want to share that with people! Some northern lights are very shorts but others last for hours, giving you plenty of time to try the best settings on your camera depending on the lighting conditions, the backdrop, the intensity of the aurora, etc.
Recommended manual settings for northern lights photography
Again, the exact settings depend on a lot of factors, but try this to start with:
Use an aperture of f/2.8, or even wider if your lens allows (might not be necessary for very bright northern lights).
Adjust an ISO from 1500 to 6400 (this varies greatly depending on the artificial lightning and the moon).
Set a shutter speed between 1-15 seconds (same here, you're gonna have to test it).
Always use a timer or a remote if you have one to prevent the camera from shaking when capturing the picture. It can also be handy for a selfie!
Northern lights photography tips:
If you don't have a tripod, try to find something stable to place the camera on. I've used logs, stones, pieces of furniture I found nearby, trash cans, the roof of a car and a mini tripod when not traveling with my big one.
Remember to pack an extra battery. If temperatures are icy cold, your battery will run out much faster.
If temperatures are freezing, wear thin gloves underneath thicker gloves so you don't have to expose your hands to take pictures or adjust settings.
No camera with a manual mode? Nowadays, most smartphones with a night mode actually take pretty good pictures of Lady Aurora, as long as it's bright enough. Plus they come with a camera stabilizer, super handy for longer exposure times!
Is this an aurora?
If you spot a weird-looking cloud and you can see the stars through, it might be a faint aurora, or the beginning of one. To be sure, take a picture with the manual mode of your camera. If the cloud is green on the picture, it's an aurora and it might be worth sticking around to see if it develops!
It's a kind of magic
Some people who went to the Arctic for several weeks told me "We didn't see a damn thing". Well, they might have not seen anything, but were they REALLY looking? I mean, I traveled up North with many different people and very few were willing to stay hours in the cold. Fortunately, I always volunteered!
Because here is the thing: You can't go outside for 2 minutes, look up and say that you tried. You can't turn on a switch to make the northern lights appear. That's what's so magical about it. There is something very special about patiently waiting in the dark, in the cold, with the only sound of the wind on the snow and the sled-dogs dog howling. Actually, if they do howl, good sign for you as they can sense the lights!
So, if you are really dreaming of seeing the northern lights, better your odds:
Look up, look up, look up, in all directions (I lived in Sweden for 6 months and ended up with a torticollis)
Wear layers and good clothing for extreme weather. If you have to invest in something, invest in good shoes and a warm jacket. Cover your hands, head and face.
Keep trying. Don't be discouraged.
Don't base an entire trip on northern lights. Whatever your destination is, the Arctic has so much to offer! Plan other activities like hiking, dog-sledding, Arctic swimming, etc, and consider the Aurora as a bonus so you don't get too disappointed.
Finally, if you are lucky enough to see nature's most incredible show, please reach out and send me your pictures! And once you've seen them, try the next ultimate Arctic experience: surfing under the northern lights in the Lofoten islands! Too extreme? Why don't you watch them from the comfort of a sauna or hot tub instead?
Here is my personal playlist to call Lady Aurora:
Be careful: you can easily get aurora-addicted!