This trip to Norway had been a last minute decision after a planned holiday to Uganda had been messed up by the damned corona pandemic. We suddenly had two and a half weeks of holiday on our hands and no idea where to spend them. The crowds of tourists that visit Norway during summer these last years had taken away a lot of the attraction. But the fact that the end of September was low season in Norway made it a suitable canditate again.
I started reading up on the Northern Lights, when, where and how to see them, and started to plan our trip around it. We would have to go North of the Arctic circle, that is above Bodo in Norway.
The best period to see the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis is from September to March, with peak moments at the end of September and March around the Equinox. The Equinox is a moment where daytime and nighttime on the Northern and Southern hemisphere are equally long, namely 12 hours. On this day the centre of the visible sun is exactly above the equator and the sun rises exactly in the East and sets exactly in the West. It marks the onset of autumn in September and the onset of spring in March. The dates vary slightly every year but are usually around the 20th of September and the 22nd of March. The “Russell-McPherron” hypothesis basically says that the high geomagnetic electrical disturbance (up to twice as many geomagnetic storms) of the sun, combined with the tilt of the earth’s axis at that time means the sun and earth’s geomagnetic field and solar winds all come into alignment and therefore encourage an enhanced chance of the particles emitted from the sun entering our atmosphere. It are those particles entering our atmosphere that are the trigger for the Aurora Borealis. Therefore during the two equinoxes Northern Lights activity tends to be much more intense and the alignment of electrical pathways will give a greater chance of seeing the aurora. Of course the added bonus is that in the autumn and spring the temperature is warmer making the Northern Lights viewing more comfortable, though the longer daylight hours also mean you will have to stay up later to see them – especially in September.
I downloaded some free apps that predict that probability of seeing the Northern Lights on the day or the coming days. The app ‘Aurora forecast’ proved to be the most useful one. On the app you can see per day on which hours the possibility is the highest and on which coming days there are spikes of KP. Based on that you can choose the days to go out and look for the Northern Lights. Kp comes from ‘K’ as is ‘Kennziffer’ (‘index’ in German) and ‘p’ as in planetary. The Kp index measures the global strength of a geomagnetic event or storm. It goes from 0 to 9, respectively from a quiet to an extreme storm. It is not a foolproof way to predict the Northern Lights but the app gives you some indication on which evenings your chances of seeing the Aurora are higher. The app also shows the strenght of solar activity from hour to hour.
We were thinking of visiting Lofoten and maybe go whale watching, so I decided that the first week of our trip would be around the Northern Lights, Lofoten and whale watching on Vesteraelen.
That first evening we stayed in Harstad and we already saw the Lights on the horizon when the setting sun was still casting some light. Someone on Tripadvisor told us to go out to Trondenes, North of Harstad but we eventually decided to drive out to Aunfjellet, West of Harstad and continue all the way up to Elgsnes. There is very little housing and thus minimal light pollution. We managed to see the Lights that evening as streaks or rays on the Western horizon. Since our luggage was delayed, we did not have or tripods and photographed while supporting our camera on the side of the car… Not ideal, but we managed to get some decent pictures.
The next day we stayed in Andenes, because we wanted to go whale watching a day later. The lady at the hotel counter told us there was some Northern Light activity that night so we asked her advice where to go so see it, and she directed us toward the light house of Andenes to get away from most of the light. That evening we saw the Lights for about an hour, over the sea, behind the light house and even towards the East above the houses. There were clouds but they gave some extra spice to the photographed night sky. They where diffuse as arcs in the sky and some rays on the Eastern horizon. On both evenings we saw the lights between 11 PM and midnight.
The third night I went to bed early, but the fourth night we went out around 10 PM and while driving from Svolvaer towards Gimsoy beach on the West side, we suddenly saw the Lights very strong above our heads while driving the E10 from Svolvaer to Gimsoy. We parked our car on the first possible spot, where some other cars had also made a stop and scurried to take out our photo gear, get in on our tripods and take some pictures. This time the lights were stronger, and danced across the sky but it did not last very long. We saw them in a beautiful curtain or bands. What we learned that night is that you best prepare your photo gear before leaving. Mount it on the tripod, put it on manual, high ISO and long exposure. It saves you a lot of time and stress when the lights suddenly appear.
Step one: wait until it gets dark. Many websites say that you often can see the Aurora between sunset and midnight. So no need to stay up all night.
Step two: find a good viewing spot. Find a place with un-obscured views North and North-West and away from light pollution. Unless you are very far north, the auroras won’t be overhead like they are in some pictures, they will likely be on the northern horizon. To maximize the chances you should find a hill, a wide open field or a beach where you can see the Northern horizon. Having your own wheels is a must. It allows you to drive out to a dark area with good open views.
Step three: go out on a clear evening with little or no clouds. If the skies are completely covered, go to bed, you won’t see anything. So next to the aurora app, keep an eye on the weather app. We used the Yahoo weather app where you get a weather forescast by the hour for most locations.
Step four: if you want proof for the homefront, take the right photogear; a camera that allows you to shoot with long exposure and a stable tripod if you do not want to end up with blurred pictures.
And then all you need is LUCK, the Northern Lights are an unpredictable event.
Set your expectations right, the Northern Lights do not always look like on those spectacular professional photographs, often they are weaker, are partly obscured by clouds, other elements in the scenery or light pollution, and they come in different colors, from green over red, blue and purple. Sometimes you see it during an hour, sometimes only a few minutes, it often comes and goes, so stay put and be patient. Taking a long exposure picture might help you recognize it when it is weak. Sometimes it paints the whole sky green, sometimes it is only one small streak in the sky.
You can always ask locals on the Tripadvisor forum for some good viewing points in the area you are staying.
When looking out for the aurora, check the nigth sky by taking a photo with long exposure every now and then to see if the Northern Lights are hiding behind the clouds or are just faint, certainly when you see some faint green light.
If you see them appear in the sky, just stop and enjoy or take pictures, do not drive on because you want to reach that perfect photo spot, they might not come back anymore!! Just take it as it comes. And find a safe parking spot, away from the road, do not stop in the middle the road in any circumstance!! Safe hunting!!