Aurora Borealis-You light up my sky

Being cold has two meanings: not reacting emotionally to things that have emotional importance to others, and standing out in the freezing cold, wearing too little, shivering too much and just waiting. And waiting. And waiting. You see, people get up to strange things in the cold. Some people like to make, then throw snowballs at each other, some people like to skate – ice skate I mean – on any vaguely thick bit of ice that they can get their teeth into (not literally) and some people like to go for a sauna and then a swim in the nearest piece of ice-cold H2O that they can get to before everything starts to look like brass monkeys, if you know what I mean.

Then there are some who decide that heat is something they were not made for, and they head towards Siberia, ships bound for Norway or the Antarctic, or the nearest urban Ice Bar where they will happily sip vodka from glasses made of ice, sitting on chairs made of ice, wearing jackets made of (no, not ice this time) thick fur to keep out the cold.

And then, just maybe, they will head outside, travel north and join with the characters from Disney’s Frozen movie to see one of nature’s most spiritual and beautiful exhibitions – the Aurora Borealis. Sorry, calling it the Northern Lights seems to have less grandeur sometimes, even if it is easier to remember.

There’s quite a lot on the news about them at the moment, because there have been quite a lot of displays in quite a lot of places, giving quite a lot of people (apologies – couldn’t get enough of quite a lot of) an experience that they may never have had. There were even rumours that it had been seen as far south as Beijing in November. Seeing the aurora in unusual places is different from seeing a rare bird – obviously, they are somewhat smaller, and you don’t need a telescope to see any aurora – but they both produce the same let’s go and see it now kind of adrenalin rush that would get most people out of the bed in the morning.

Every Sighting Different

It is an addiction I wish I could put down sometimes. It is expensive – both for the travel, the tours and the camera equipment – but it is soooo addictive. Every display is different, every chase can be different, there is disappointment, there is joy – but there is always expense. I took a trip one night and as we got close to Finland, there it was: stop the bus. The clear line of an aurora pierced the dark night sky.

Excitement pounding, hearts racing (apologies for the cliché) and a dash to leave the minibus parked at the side of the road. Forget the cold, forget any common sense, forget checking to see if there were any cars coming (there weren’t thankfully)… it was there. For three hours, we watched this line of glassy mystery move and sway and swirl across the night sky, sometimes right above us, sometimes shifting north or south. But I am sure that that won’t be the only time I feel that rush and eagerness to see something that seems incredible.

The Sun Throwing Solar Gunk

So, what are they? Where can you go to see them? And when is good? Well, here’s where something seemingly spiritual actually does come down to science. The basic idea is this: the sun has blackspots and these spots vary in size and regularity, but every so often a spot – or hole – facing the earth will spurt out a load of solar gunk (see how scientific I am trying to be) in a solar storm towards Earth and when it gets to Earth, one of two things will happen – and these concern Earth’s magnetic field. That magnetic field surrounds Earth’s atmosphere with two exceptions: a ring around the arctic circle in the north, and a similar ring around the Antarctic. In both places, the magnetic field drops towards the atmosphere.

Why do you need to know this? Because it is at these places that the aurora forms. But these places are not constant: a strong push of solar gunk, otherwise known as a coronal mass ejection (CME) will push that gap in the magnetic field south. The CME material then heads into the atmosphere, where it meets oxygen and nitrogen molecules and hey presto. That produces coloured light – and we get the aurora. That answers the question about what they are, in scientific terms. As an observer, they are magical, wonderful, spiritual, exciting and above all, extraordinarily addictive and sometimes frustrating. Or at least they are to me.

Arctic Circle? No Need

This also answers the question about where you can go to see them, but some answers may surprise you. The usual place to see them is around the Arctic Circle. You don’t need a strong solar storm to see them in Alaska, many parts of Canada, Iceland of course, northern Siberia, northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, but if conditions are right, you can often see them from the northern coast of Aberdeenshire and northern Scotland as well. Reykjavik is obviously a great place to go – though snow and very strong winds can sometimes create havoc with driving and trying to see or photograph them.

Decide: Large Coach, Small Minibus or Rental Car

I have been to Kiruna and the Swedish national park of Abisko nearby where sledging with reindeer and climbing up frozen waterfalls or staying on beds of ice in the ice hotel are equally fun and available if you are into that kind of thing, but perhaps the easiest place I have seen them is Tromso, in northern Norway. Not only is Tromso in the heart of the stunning Norwegian fjords with all the photography, whale watching, and hiking opportunities available, but it also has a good number of hotels and Air BnB’s and at around 6pm each evening, the largest number of coaches, minibuses and often, but not always, Chinese tourists departing in totally different directions to try to catch a glimpse of something magical.

It is possible to hire a car and just drive around to the Lofoten coast or a nearby lake: aurora will often be nearly overhead, so it doesn’t really matter if there is a mountain or two nearby. Hiring a car gives you independence but not necessarily the information you might need; about weather, about whether the aurora is likely, but then taking a large coach is probably a nightmare in a different way – you will be stuck with main roads, have limited opportunities to pull off the road and be stuck with 57 other people all pushing to get off the bus to see something that someone tells you is the aurora. Small minibus trips which get you into dark places away from other vehicles are usually better.

Rarely Green

“Hey Peter, someone tells you…?”  Hmmm, or didn’t I mention this? OK, the aurora rarely looks green, or red or purple for that matter. It usually looks grey, actually – unless it is strong. If it is strong, then it will be clearly visible and may indeed look red or green: there may be a very clear line across the sky, which might look a bit like an airplane trail at night, going east to west across the sky. Some find this really frustrating: after all, it never looks grey in the pictures. Hmmm, but then cameras have something at their rear that you do not have: a digital sensor.

Unless you are particularly unusual, or are a movie character called Riddick, you have eyes, and your eyes have two different types of cells – rods and cones. (Oh boy, he’s getting scientific again. Facepalm…) The former enables us to see something in the dark, and the cones give colour. There’s just one problem: the cones cannot function in low light because there is not enough light for them to process, so most things you see in the dark are grey and white-ish. The camera can take in and process a lot more light so they will see colour. When the solar storm is strong, the aurora might be bright enough to see colours, but don’t be disappointed if that is not the case.

Only Days with a “Y”

As for the when, well, all you need is a clear, dark sky and some aurora. Some have said that aurora is about the cold: it is not. Some have said that you need a letter Y in the day of the week to see them: yes – that is actually true; but think for a moment about that one. Others have said that you can only see them in the winter, which is not actually true – I have photographed aurora in August in Scotland. The challenge with anything outside of winter is that the nights are very short and because cameras can be very sensitive to light, it can sometimes be more than an hour after sunset before the sky looks dark to a camera, so if the sun is setting at 10 pm and then rising again at 2.30 am, which it would do in the Arctic Circle in the spring, then you can understand that you probably won’t see anything. Is there a good time of night? Nope.

2024 is THE Year

Of course, don’t try to find the aurora when it is cloudy or when there is fog, but there are two other aspects to the when. The sun goes in an 11 or 12 year cycle in terms of solar activity, and we are coming to the peak of that cycle now, so 2024 and ahead should be good years to see the aurora. The second aspect has to do with the time of the month: moonlight. Because winter produces longer nights, the best times to go are between November and March, but a strong moon, which will occur for half of every month, either side of the new moon, will create real problems if the aurora is weak. So, that gives you about six months of the year, and then about two weeks for each of those six months, and you end up with about 12 weeks when you will have the best chance. Add in the possibility of cloudy nights, and you can see that it can sometimes be more challenging to see them than we might want.

So back to the cold. The smaller trips will provide food, the larger trips will provide food and your self-drive hire car, well, you’ll need to make your own arrangements, but you will need to consider clothing carefully. Iceland is warmer – it is an island, and then warmer still would be Shetland and Orkney, which can still get some great shows sometimes. Tromso is about minus 15 degrees and Kiruna/Abisko can get down to minus 25 degrees: they are further from the sea. Tour guides will usually have some special clothing for you, but pack warm anyway. They may also have some camera equipment for you as well, but if you have a good, relatively modern phone and something to hold it steady, then you might well be OK. For the more photographic, a fast wide-angle camera lens and a relatively modern camera mounted on a decent tripod will usually enable you to capture an aurora fairly well.

Good luck hunting.

I have travelled to Lapland, the region hosting Kiruna and Tromso, where northern Sweden, Norway and Finland meet, several times, sometimes seeing the aurora, sometimes spending six hours in a minibus, hoping that the snow and cloud will disappear. I have got in the car, driven for an hour or so from Aberdeen to Banff or Fraserbrough on the northeast coast of Scotland to watch them dance across the sky for 90 minutes, and seen them stretch from one coast of Iceland to another. They never fail to be magical. Good luck hunting.

Click here to read more from Dr Peter Morgan

Dr Peter Morgan is an experienced  management educator and writer, who has travelled widely, and who has worked with companies in the UK, in India and China.

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