Friday 9 October 2015

Aurora Borealis - Northern Lights

Northern lights captured at Abisko
Northern Lights Captured at Abisko - March 2014

It was all over the news today (08-10-2015) - Spectacular Northern lights display in Scotland and parts of Northern England. I thought I will use the opportunity to write my next post and about my experience when I went aurora hunting in 2014. An experience I will cherish throughout my lifetime. People often ask me what has been my best travel experience so far, and I always struggle to answer. Each place is so unique. However I always say that the trip to Arctic always stands out, and I will tell you why, keep reading :).

I started thinking about this trip way back in 2009, and no, I have not been planning it since then, I was just waiting for the right opportunity. Is there such thing called right opportunity to view the Northern Lights? To be perfectly honest they are very temperamental. It is nature after all, it has its own mind. Despite all the modern equipment and advancements in science and technology it is not as easy as predicting the weather on our planet.

Why 2014? Out of the many factors that I took into considerations Solar Maximum (also called Solar Max) was one of them. This is a cycle that sun goes through every 11 years. Basically a sunspot cycle when solar activity is highest and sunspots are most abundant. Between 2012 to 2015 is the period when these activities will be at it's peak. That was one of the reasons why I decided to go in 2014. There were several other factors that I looked into and I will go through them now. But before that let us understand this activity in detail. I have complied a list of FAQ's for the benefit of all of us nature enthusiasts out there.

What are Northern Lights?
In simple terms, when magnetically charged particles from the sun (or the sun spots) are bombarded towards the earth, eventually they enter the earth's atmosphere and interact with the gaseous particles in the earth's atmosphere. This causes the glow. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. Although mainly green produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth, there have been other shades of auroras such as red, blue or purple-red.

Why are they called Northern Lights?
Simply because they occur in the northern hemisphere primarily near the areas closer to north pole.  

Why Aurora Borealis?
'Aurora borealis', the lights of the northern hemisphere, means 'dawn of the north'. Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn.

Does it have to be below freezing for the northern lights to appear?
No. Cold temperatures have nothing to do with the occurrence of  Northern Lights. I was in Iceland last summer, there were spotless clear skies, and I said to one of the locals if lucky we might be able to see the Northern Lights tonight. I said to her the kP index is really high today as well (More on kP index later). She said to me, "no you can't tonight, its not cold enough". I didn't say anything then as I didn't really want to upset the local :). Anyway just to reiterate temperatures have got nothing to do with the appearance of the northern lights. You need clear and extremely dark skies with no light pollution what so ever, and because these activities happen near the polar region (which happen to be always cold) and you get dark skies only in winter that's why people have the misconception that it has to be cold. In Polar region even at midnight there is still twilight during summer and even if the lights show up you miss them because its not dark enough. However people have spotted them as early as August in some regions.

Where is the best place to see the northern lights?
To see the celestial disco in its full glory, you will have to head north towards the Arctic, above latitude 60 degrees at the least.The snowy wilds of Canada and Alaska are fine viewing spots, but for most of us it is more affordable, and convenient, to fly to Iceland or northern Scandinavia, commonly known as Lapland. Here it is possible to see the lights from late September to early April, with October to November and February to March considered optimum periods. I saw them at north of Sweden about 120 miles away from arctic circle place called Abisko. 

Is there such thing called Southern Lights?
Of course there is. Similar activities happen around the southern pole. And around southern winter (May to August) time is best suited for that. However most of the display that happens near the southern pole is restricted for the penguins. Cost and remoteness to get near the southern pole are the major factors why they are not so popular. And the other name for it is Aurora Australis

Any guidelines on what to pack for Northern Lights trip?
Anything and everything warm.
Thermal Wear
Woolen Socks – few pairs to form a layer
Thick combat trousers
Proper Snow Walking Waterproof Boots
Thick Waterproof Jacket
Sun Glasses - Not to see the Northern lights of course, they are very useful during the day. Even if its not sunny you can see lot of glare from a total whiteout everywhere.
Sunscreen - Again it might sound funny but if you do get a sunny day your exposed skin does get badly burnt mainly because you don't realise due sub zero temperatures, and the reflection from the snow adds to the intensity. The UV percentage at these regions is very high.
Camera + Remote control (Very handy, you don't have to take your gloves off all the time). As far as camera I will seriously recommend decent SLR if your intention is to capture Northern Lights.
Tripod - Absolutely essential for capturing the northern lights
Medicines - Mainly for Common Cold, Nasal drops, First Aid Kit

What other activities can be done during the day as the northern light activity is only visible when it is completely dark?
That's what I tell everybody who ask me for advice about booking a holiday like this. I say to them, always treat Northern Lights as bonus. Plan your holiday such that if you see them count yourself among the lucky ones, if not don't be disappointed there is always next time. I will give you some tips later on maximising your chances of seeing the them but despite all that remember it is nature after all, it's not in your hand.
There are lots of other activities you could plan. I did husky dog sledding, snow mobiling, stayed at the ice hotel, saw the fantastic themed rooms made of ice, ice sculptures, visited the ice bar, did some ice fishing. I will go through the above activities is a separate blog and how to book them. But yes no matter what part of the world you go to see them - whether its Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Alaska or Canada, you will find loads of other activities to do. I stayed at Ice Hotel in Kiruna but in Finland they have igloos with glass top so you can lie down in your bed looking at the lights should they occur. Some organise dinner in glass restaurants. Some have alarm systems so you could sleep until the Aurora alarm comes on. The longer your trip more chance you give yourself to see the lights.

How did I prepare myself for this and where did I go to see them?
I saw them in Abisko - Northen Sweden - 120 Miles North of Arctic Circle.

1. As I said, the first thing I did was waited for Solar Max, you don't have to but since I knew I was only few years away from it since I started planning I thought I might as well.

2. While I was researching about the best place to go, a friend of mine suggested Abisko. A natural occurrence in the behaviour of the prevailing winds in the area means that cloud rarely forms, creating ideal conditions for auroral appearances. This anomaly in cloud formation also makes Abisko one of the driest places in Sweden. The Abisko sky station is at the summit of the mountain and strategically placed between valleys where there is very low precipitation and hence low cloud formation, and the continuous wind keeps blowing the cloud away so even if there are clouds you get intervals of cloud free skies. You also take a chair lift to the top of the mountain where there have the aurora sky station. Since you are that high, the likelihood is you are above most of the low clouds.

3. Abisko itself is very remote and the mountain is in total wilderness, therefore there is no light pollution whatsoever. 

4. I planned my activity around new moon so there was no moon in the sky making the sky even darker. 

5. I downloaded an app on my iPhone that forecasts the Auroras. It's called "Aurora Fcst". I will highly recommend it. I am sure there is an Android version as well. It is very accurate. It shows the geomagnetic activity on the sun and the most important kP index. Higher the kP index better the chance for you to see the auroral activity. If you are there for few days and you notice that the kP index for a particular day is high then make sure you stay up late provided there are clear skies because the chances are you will see them.
More about kP Index -
It is a scale of numbers between 0 – 9 known as the planetary index. Using this scale, it is easy to determine what kp number you need to have a chance of seeing auroras where you are. So look on the map, have a look which line and which corresponding kp number are on top of or just above your location.

The kp numbers start at 0 and as the geomagnetic (aurora) strength increases, so too does the kp number. So kp 0 being a very weak or none existent aurora, right through to 9 being a major geomagnetic storm with auroras likely in France and even Northern Spain.

6. Kept my fingers crossed (I am not superstitious but after all those efforts didn't want to take a chance). And believe me I could hardly feel my fingers. It was almost -20 with wind-chill. 

7. After about an hour or so what we saw is something I cannot describe in words. The number one natural wonder in the world, totally worth all those biting cold winds, slippery snow surfaces, numb fingers to the extent where I thought I was going to get frost bites.

Here are some of the photos although photos won't do justice to what you see while you are there -

How to capture Northern Lights on camera?
1. A sturdy tripod. This is essential.

2. Wide-angle lenses. Dedicated wide-angle lenses (like Nikon's 10-24mm DX lens) capture the widest amount of sky, but even a standard lens (like the 24-70mm FX lens) is "wide enough" for most.

3. Fully charged batteries. -20 degree temperatures can zap a battery in no time, so make sure you're at 100 percent before leaving your hotel. If you have spares, bring them!

4. Flexible gloves. You'll need to be able to tweak your camera settings, so make sure you wear gloves that allow you that luxury.

5. A remote shutter. This is optional, but having a remote to activate each shot means less opportunity for blur in long exposure shots. At those extreme temperatures my remote shutter release button stopped working. So I put my shutter release on long delays and pressed the shutter button myself while the camera was on tripod.

6. A flashlight / headlamp. This is super useful for lighting up the buttons on your camera so you can tweak settings in the dark of the night. But please use only when you really need it, you don't want to create any light pollution otherwise I can guarantee you won't be very popular up there.

7. And please don't use flash on the camera, it's not as if it is going to reach all the way to the stars anyway. And moreover it completely ruins the experience of those who are there to see the northern lights who keep seeing light flashing on your camera instead.

So, that's about it as far as kit. Now, let's talk settings:

1. Widen your lenses as far as they'll go -- you want a vast image, and having the ground / surrounding buildings / waterfront visible on the lower portion of the shot provides outstanding scale and context.

2. Place your DSLR in full manual mode; you'll want total control over every single aspect of these shots.

3. Switch lens to manual mode, and dial your focus ring to Infinity.

4. Lower your aperture as far down as it'll go. I'm talking f/2.8, f/3.5, etc. Whatever your lens will stop down to.

5. Lower your ISO between 200 - 1000. This varies greatly depending on the camera, so you'll need to start at 200 and raise it notch by notch if your shots are simply too dark.

6. Adjust your shutter speed to 30 seconds. If your camera will only go to 20 or 25 seconds, you can probably make that work as well. Those with a remote shutter can use "Bulb" mode for even longer exposure shots, but remember, the longer you leave that shutter open, the lower your ISO needs to go (and / or higher your aperture value needs to be) to prevent too much light from "whiting out" the shot.

7. Set your file capture type to RAW! This is an extremely vital step. Feel free to shoot in RAW + JPEG if you want both, but RAW files grab the rich blackness of the sky far better than JPEG will.

8. Align your shot on the tripod. Peek through the viewfinder and make sure you're getting the angle you want; I'd recommend various portions of the sky to add some variety.

9. Gently press the shutter button, and remain still. Even the slightest shaking of the ground could introduce unwanted blur into your shots, so it's important to remain still as the long exposure takes place. You can dodge this by using a remote shutter from a distance away.

10. Evaluate your results. If it's too dark, bump the ISO value higher or lengthen the exposure time (i.e. shutter speed) beyond 30 seconds. If it's too light, raise the aperture value a notch or two or bump your ISO value closer to 0. You could also slow the exposure, but I'd use that as a last resort.

The only other major advice I have is to shoot a lot. A whole lot. You aren't guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, so if they come out, you need to be quick in your setup procedure and continually fire shots in hopes of grabbing a handful of keepers. You also cannot assume that you have "one great shot" based on what your see on your DSLR's LCD. Those are often misleading, and can hide subtle amounts of blur that'll show up later. Take as many shots as you can stand to take, as each one is guaranteed to be somewhat different than the last. I'd also recommend a lot of patience, and if you don't see them on your first night out, try again. Trust me, it's totally worth the effort.

Aurora watch subscription -
I have also subscribed to They send you email alerts when high auroral activity is detected. I got one for the display that happened in Scotland and Northern England on Wednesday but unfortunately I live too far South to see anything.

Links to booking hotel -
If you are going to book the one in Abisko use the booking link right at the bottom of this page and search for Abisko Mountain Lodge.

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