Is finding Aurora on your bucket list? Do you dream about watching Northern Lights dancing on the sky? I have you covered! Check those seven tips that I used to increase my chances to see Aurora several times in different locations, which will help you to see Aurora, too!
For a long time, I had a dream to see Aurora. It’s an unforgettable experience. I managed to see it 5 times with very little effort and I don’t even live in the location where Northern Lights are very common. I didn’t even know that it’s possible to see it in Scotland before I experienced it myself.
I received many questions on how I managed to see it so many times, so I decided to share some of my tips with you, that can help you increase your chances of spotting Aurora.
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What is Aurora?
Aurora (called Aurora Borealis and Northern Lights in northern latitudes or Southern lights and Aurora Australis as their southern counterpart) is a natural light phenomenon.
It originates millions of miles away on the surface of the Sun during the electromagnetic explosion, which creates a stream of solar particles, known as Solar Wind. When the wind goes into Earth’s direction – this is when we can see Aurora, usually three or four nights later.
Solar particles interact with the Earth magnetic field and some of them escape into the atmosphere, around the magnetic poles (hence aurora is visible mostly at high latitudes). The collision of those solar particles with air molecules in the atmosphere generates energy, which is then transferred into the light. When the emission happens on a big scale – this is when we can see strong lights on the night sky. You can read more here.
They usually have different forms – they might appear as a glow of light or create “curtains” or “arcs”. They might be quiet, or evolve and move through the sky – this is when we call them “dancing lights”.
You can see Aurora in different colours – depending on the types of atoms involved in the collision, which varies with height. Below 60 miles (100 km) there are blue lights, purple occurs at 60 miles and above, bright green between 60‑150 miles (100‑240 km), and red appearing above 150 miles (240 km).
Where to see Aurora?
Most of the Auroras appear in the “auroral zone”, which is of 3° to 6° width and between 10° and 20° from geomagnetic poles. It means – the closer to the pole you are, the higher chance of seeing the aurora. However, with particularly strong activity, they are occasionally seen even more south (for example Poland and France last year, and in Oslo in winter). Good places for watching Northern Lights are north parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland or Iceland. For more tips on how to see Northern Lights in Iceland check here. Svalbard is a great location for the Northern Lights as in the winter months there is 24-hour darkness.
When is the best time to see Aurora?
Because it’s a natural phenomenon, highly dependent on the solar activity, it is extremely hard to accurately predict the exact time to see Northern or Southern Lights. However, based on the existing data and monitoring of the sun activity some assumptions and “forecasts” can be made (more about it later on).
Winter months (November to March in the northern hemisphere), when the nights are longer and it’s getting dark earlier, are the most popular time of the year for Aurora hunting. However, it’s also possible to see it different times of the year – we managed to see Northern Lights three nights in the row in Iceland at the beginning of September.
What is the best time of the day to see Aurora?
It is not uncommon, that the predicted highest Aurora activity is in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, this is not very useful, because for the Northern Lights to be visible – the sky needs to be dark. The optimal times during the night would be from around 9 pm – 2-3am, but as long as it’s dark, you might still be able to see them.
7 steps that will increase your chances to see Aurora:
1. Monitor Aurora forecast:
There are several pages and apps, that try to estimate the possibility of Aurora happenings at specific times. Bare in mind, however, that it’s only the assumptions, and currently the most correct forecast can be done only around 2 hours in advance. You can get your bearings around though and plan a bit, even if it doesn’t work out this time.
During our first night in Iceland in Reykjavik, we managed to have a clear sky. After having dinner on the campsite’s tables outside I checked my phone app for the aurora activity and it showed KP4 (explanation for KPs below). It would normally be too small for Scotland, but not for Iceland. On our way to town, I was looking intensely into the north direction and I saw it! Green lights hanging over the horizon. We immediately turned the car, changing our plans from night out in city center to aurora hunting, drove out of the city and we had the opportunity to see the most amazing Northern Lights spectacle, that I’ve ever seen!
Here are the websites and apps that I use:
- Websites: Aurora Service – I usually rely on this one, as it’s most of the times accurate. There are also: Aurora Watch UK , Aurora Hunters UK
- Facebook pages: Aurora Watch UK, Aurora Forecast, Aurora Service-Europe
- apps: AuroraWatch, Aurora Forecast
When you go to Aurora Service website, you will see KP index map.
What is the KP index?
It’s a number that determines your chance of seeing aurora in the place where you are. It’s a numeric system of geomagnetic activity. KP 0 means very weak or not existing activity, KP 9 is very strong, that may even cause aurora to be visible from the southern parts of Europe like Poland or France. It’s not exact, so if you are in the place where the map says KP 6, you can still try to go out and hunt aurora when the app says KP 5, as you might be lucky. It’s just the guide, so don’t treat it as a definite information – Aurora is very hard to predict.
Even better indicator for Aurora than KP index are magnetometers. However, it might be a bit complicated and difficult to monitor the data coming from them. If you are interested in more details, you can find the up-to-date magnetometers here.
2. Check cloud coverage
In order to be able to see Aurora, the sky needs to be clear. If there are some clouds, you might still spot little glow, but if the whole sky is covered – you’re not going to see much. In the UK I usually use Metoffice cloud coverage website to check hourly coverage in my area.
3. Check social media (Instagram and Facebook groups)
There are many people all over the world constantly trying to hunt for Aurora (called Aurora hunters). You can find many groups on Facebook, where people share tips for seeing Northern Lights, best places in the local area and, most importantly, last minute pictures from their recent viewings. Because I am based a bit more in the south than other people in the northern Scotland, before heading off for Aurora hunt, I usually check if someone else more north from me can see any signs of it, as a confirmation, that I might be able to see them, as well.
If you type “Aurora” in Facebook search and your location, you will find many others. On Instagram look for #aurora and #northernlights hashtags and your location.
Also, follow worlderingaround on Facebook – I post there the current high aurora activities alerts.
4. Find a good spot – dark, north and elevated
Once you confirm, that you have a chance to see Aurora tonight, you need to find a good place for watching it. You want it to be very dark. Get as far from the city lights as possible. Find a spot with minimum light pollution and a view with not obscured open horizon to the north (unless you are very far north, then you can see Northern Lights also above your head). Climbing a hill may be a good idea, as it gives you an open view to the horizon. Check the light pollution map to see where is the best place near you.
5. Adjust your eyes to the darkness
It happens, especially when the Northern Lights are weak and you are not used to finding them, that you might have difficulties to see anything. That’s why it’s important, that your eyes get used to the darkness – don’t look at any bright spots or car lights, adjust your phone brightness to the minimum and try to look into the darkness.
6. Know what to look for
Aurora is not always bright green and purple. At the first time when I saw it, at the beginning it was rather gray until it gained more colours. Sometimes you want to see Aurora so badly, that you can take any source of bright light for the Northern Lights. Especially close to the cities, you can see the light reflecting in the sky, that can look very similar to Aurora. Here are few questions, that you can ask yourself to check if what you saw was really an Aurora.
After knowing that I am in a dark place, far away from light pollution, with a clear sky, overlooking the north, I usually do a check with my camera (next point), look for a green colour (it’s the most common here) and look at the shape of the possible Aurora lights (many times it’s just a glow over the horizon, but I recognized it several times thanks to its moving arches).
After you see it a couple of times, it will be easier for you to distinguish it. When we were in Iceland and we saw it 3 nights in a row, I was able to spot very faint one through the window, even with the house lights around, when nobody else couldn’t see anything.
7. Use your camera wisely
Especially with weak Northern Lights, it might be challenging to see them in a proper colour with a bare eye and might be much better with a camera. This is because we can’t adjust the amount of light that’s coming into our eyes, however, you can do it with the camera (which has a function for setting the exposure times and aperture settings). The longer the exposure, the more light is coming into the camera, and when used correctly it will catch Aurora with beautiful strong vivid colours.
The camera, that I use for all my photos is Fuji X-E1. It provides great quality of pictures and a big range of settings, with interchangeable lenses, while still being light and small – just perfect for travel.
When you use long exposure, it’s important to keep the camera still and avoid all the micro-movements. In that case, the tripod is essential. I use the Manfrotto Compact Light – the lightest tripod in their range.
I hope that information and tips will help you to finally see polar lights. Happy Aurora hunting!
Have you managed to see Northern or Southern Lights before? Let me know in the comments and if you find this article helpful, please share it along!
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