After showing pictures of Aurora borealis, people often tell me they hope to have this experience one day as well. That’s also how we started. I had seen it several times already while guiding, but my mother and Geert really wanted to see it. So we decided to head north, and now, after three tries, we finally succeeded.
If you want to go hunting yourself, what do you need? Where do you go? It’s always a bit of a gamble as northern lights are difficult to predict well in advance. But there are some things you can do to increase the chance of success.
1. Pick the right place. Northern lights are best seen inside the ‘Auroral oval‘. As this doughnut-shaped ring is centred around the Earth’s geomagnetic pole, the best place is not always at the same latitude. The geomagnetic pole is tilted towards North America, meaning Northern Lights can be seen much further south in North America as in Europe. In Europe, the Auroral oval is over northern Scandinavia, just above Iceland and through the middle of Greenland.
2. It has to be dark. At these latitudes, it doesn’t get dark in summer. Being around the Arctic Circle, the sun may just dip below the horizon or maybe not at all. From September to March the sun will be below the horizon long enough to create enough darkness during the night. This means this will be the best time to chase Auroras. Bear in mind that in the middle of winter the hours of daylight are very short, limiting the things you can do during the day. The available light however during those hours will be beautiful.
3. You need clear skies. This is even more difficult to predict. As Auroras take place at altitudes of at least 80km, they are well above the clouds. You want to be at a location that has little cloud cover. The west coast of Norway has very variable weather, meaning you’ll rarely have overcast weather for a more extended period. A downside is that you’re also less likely to have an extended period of good weather (although we had clear skies for 5 days in a row). Another good place is Abisko, though I’ve never been there in winter. On the other side of the Norwegian mountains, it often has good weather. The mountains form a barrier for clouds from the west. More difficult to reach, but also often with good weather is Scoresby Sund in East Greenland (and likely other places in Greenland as well). The ice cap creates its own climate and usually has a high-pressure system over it.
4. The sun must be active. This one is difficult too, as it is hard to predict. However, the sun has an 11-year cycle where it gets more active and less active. The last solar maximum was in 2014, so the next one should be expected in 2025. However, the pictures on this page are made this year, well after this solar maximum. If you’re right in the auroral oval it doesn’t matter too much really. Then there is always a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights. We were extremely lucky and saw at least a little bit of light six out of seven nights.
5. Accommodation. Now you’ve decided when and where to go, it’s essential to find the right place to stay. Preferably away from cities, street lights or other artificial light sources, so you have the best chance of seeing the Aurora close to your home. Also, pay attention to places where you have a nice foreground below the Auroras. This is, of course, something that can be scouted during the daylight period.
Now you’re all set, and you have to hope for a bit of solar wind and favourable cloud conditions. Several websites and apps give short-term predictions for Northern Lights. But my personal experience is that, in the right location, the cloud cover is more important as the solar wind.