7 things you need to know about chasing the Northern Lights

Chasing the Northern Lights, 7 things to knowBefore I go and spill the contents of my brain onto this page, there is something I HAVE to tell you about chasing the Northern Lights, it is exciting and addictive and seeing them once is just not enough.

We’ve been on three holidays where we had hopes of seeing the lights.  

The first in December 2016, we road tripped around Northern Scotland in the middle of winter with the besties, we didn’t see the lights. Missing them by one night as we had to move on to our next accommodation spot for the trip.

Our second holiday was in Northern Norway in late March 2017, we hired a motorhome and spent a few spring days exploring the Arctic countryside surrounding Tromsø, we saw the lights twice with the naked eye, once arcing right over us from the eastern horizon to the west.  Then in the wee hours of the morning on Riaans birthday, they danced briefly across the sky, sending us scrambling for our gloves and cameras before getting out into the cold.  We also caught the green glow on camera a few nights while in Norway, but there were no spectacular displays.

Our third and most successful chase was in Iceland in late September 2017, we hired a campervan and explored Iceland for 10 awesome days. We were lucky enough to see the lights decently a total of 5 times, green to the naked eye. We saw them dance and make curtains in the sky and on one very special night they were so bright they lit up the entire sky and danced in various colours before the sun had dipped below the horizon. They were incredible.
Chasing the Northern Lights, 7 things to knowIn the lead up to these trips I did countless hours of reading up on the lights. Researching what geomagnetic storms, CME’s and coronal holes are, and obsessing over high Kp predictions. I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours watching live sky cams and insta-stalking numerous aurora chaser accounts. Forever in awe of the elusive Aurora. 

So, I thought it would be useful to summarise everything I know about chasing the Northern Lights and everything I have learnt from experience right here. Best you grab yourself a tea, coffee, wine or whatever floats your goat. 

The Kp

This is probably the most important thing to know about when it comes to chasing the Aurora. The Kp is a scale of numbers from 0 to 9 used to measure the disturbance of the earth’s magnetic field with 0 being low and 9 being high. The larger the disturbance, the better the chance seeing the Aurora (especially combined with a Southerly Bz). 

Conditions have to be favourable

For optimal viewing chances you want to get away from cities and the light pollution they cause, you’ll need a strong Kp prediction, and you’ll need clear skies, clouds block the aurora right out. 

Visit the right places

To have a good possibility of seeing the Aurora Borealis you need to get yourself to the north. Good places to go to see them include Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, AND if the Kp is high enough you can even see them from North Scotland. Also if you aren’t far North like Iceland/Northern Norway then try to have a clear view of the horizon to the North because the lights will not be dancing overhead, they’ll most likely be on the horizon in the distance.
Chasing the Northern Lights, 7 things to knowThere is this nifty little map thing above from Aurora Service Europe that gives an indication of the minimum Kp needed to see the Aurora in different parts of Europe, it’s important for me to stress that this is just a guide, a Kp of 3 does not guarantee that you will see the lights in Iceland for example.

Visit at the best possible time

A lot of people think that winter is the best time to see the Northern lights but winter in the North means high chances of it snowing and snow=clouds. You can actually start seeing the aurora from late August/early September when the skies start getting dark. Your chances are pretty good right through the winter until late March/early April until the nights start getting shorter in spring.

Geomagnetic storms favour the equinox months (September and March), auroral activities peak in the weeks around the equinox, with the Autumnal equinox signalling the start of Aurora season. Making it a good time to book a trip.

Visiting in autumn is great because the lakes are not frozen yet and you have the chance of seeing the Aurora reflected on the water as it dances overhead, making it just a tad more magical. Also, the temperatures are above freezing which makes staying out until 1am watching the sky a lot more pleasant.

A full moon will also hurt your chances of seeing the Aurora because it increases the light in the night sky, dark skies are ideal for viewing so a new moon is ideal. When planning a holiday/chase you can check the moon phase here.

If someone figures out a way to know when and where the Aurora can be seen they will make soooo much money. If you are interested in how they predict the Aurora and why it is so hard to predict check out the Aurora Service Europe website and I think this article and this one are both very informative reads. 

Track the Kp

The Kp is an indication of the strength of disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field. While it’s not 100% accurate to say that there is no point in going out on a chase if the Kp is low, a high Kp does not promise that you will see the Aurora. We had nights with high Kp and no lights and nights with low Kp and faint lights, but our patience and perseverance was rewarded. Generally speaking, the higher the Kp the more likely you are to see the Northern Lights.

I use 2 different Apps to keep an eye on the Kp index (I like checking the Kp at least once or twice a month even if we aren’t chasing the Northern Lights – such a nerd, I know.) The one is called “Aurora Hunters UK” (it’s logo in the playstore is a colourful AH UK) and the other is “Aurora Forecast” (it’s logo has a pretty blue-green aurora-like squiggle and the word Aurora underneath it).

Aurora Hunters UK has a Facebook group where they post articles explaining what causes geomagnetic storms and why Kps are so high if there is a peak in activity. They have useful explanations of Kp, Bz Wind Speed and Proton Density on their App as well as 28 day and 3 day forecasts and live data. They also show auroral maps, photos of the sun’s surface and some very technical graphs which I have no idea how to read. I don’t ever get notifications from this App and the facebook notifications tend to come through quite late which is why I use 2 Apps.

Aurora Forecast App has great notifications, they were pretty spot on while we were in Iceland and their App design is more visually appealing than AHUK. They also have a long-term prediction as well as a detailed prediction for the next 1 hour and 48 hours. The App also has maps that show what the Aurora looks like, these are updated almost hourly and are pretty cool for a visual representation of whats going on in the atmosphere. I also like checking whether the apps are showing the same prediction, just to know what to expect.

On numerous occasions in Iceland both of the Apps showed readings of 0Kp, this was a great indication of disturbance in the radio waves and shortly thereafter we would see the Aurora. 

Know the weather & be flexible in your chase

If you go on a holiday with the hopes of seeing/chasing the Northern Lights I think being flexible will give you the highest chance of seeing the lights. It might mean skipping an attraction to be able to drive a little further and get clear skies for the night. Or it may mean changing your plans completely and skipping a whole leg of your trip. It’s really up to you what you do and that is the beauty of chasing the Northern Lights without a guide.

When we arrived in Iceland we knew the route we wanted to drive but our decision to do the ring road clock-wise/anti clock-wise was based purely on the weather. We checked the local weather website for the forecast cloud coverage on the day we arrived, it showed that most of the island would be covered in cloud for our first 2 nights and that after that the North East of the island would start clearing up so we knew we had to go anti-clockwise to get to the North East when the weather started clearing.

In Norway we planned a night out of the city staying in a wood lavvu for the first night and had absolutely no plans after that. We woke up every morning, checked the Norwegian weather website and went where there were the least/no clouds.  Full disclosure: This did see us venture into Finland one night, but it worked, we saw the Aurora!

Prepare to put in effort and be a night person

The Aurora is most likely to be seen between 9 pm and the wee hours of the morning, but it can be seen from as early as 6pm in the winter until as late as 6am. You have to be prepared to stay up late and keep an eye out for the lights. If you’re in bed every night by 10 pm I’m sorry to say that you are probably going to miss a show or two.  Unless you are staying at one of those fancy remote guesthouses that have a service where they give you a wake-up call if the Aurora appears.

Other than staying up and watching the skies you will probably have to put in the effort to get out of the city. It is possible to see the lights from cities like Reykjavik and Tromso when they are very strong but if the Kp is weak you will have a better chance of seeing the lights if you get out to the Arctic countryside away from the light pollution of the cities.

The first time we saw the Aurora we found ourselves a spot in Northern Norway with clear skies, we made some hot chocolate and waited in the car, keeping our eyes on the horizon. A few organised chases and aurora guides showed up and made fires for their groups of people on the water’s edge. Shortly after midnight the guides and organised chases all piled back into their mini busses and left. It was just us and the open skies. Not even 30 minutes later the Aurora made its appearance and had us scrambling for our beanies and gloves as it danced across the sky. (The Kp was only 2.)

But if you are lucky, you can see them quite early. The best show we had started before the sun had even set completely and danced for hours on end, over our heads, from one horizon to the other. When it first started we thought it was clouds because they were greyish and the sun hadn’t set yet, but they weren’t normal cloud shapes, they were more wispy and they were moving, so we stopped the car and took a long exposure photo and we could see the green glow in the sky on the camera display.

We continued driving towards the Aurora and as the sky darkened the Aurora got bright and green to the naked eye. We pulled into the first turn off we could find, set up our tripods and started taking photos of the Aurora and the sunset. That night we stayed out until 1am watching the aurora dance and twirl all around us, we huddled around a fire, made friends and forgot all about dinner. As we snuggled up, chattering about the incredible night we had just had and trying to get warm in our little camper van the aurora continued to dance overhead. 

I think that’s it. I hope you learned something or I answered any questions you might have had. If I did a crap job and you have any more questions or anything to add please do pop it in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.

You can watch a time-lapse of the amazing show I spoke about above here.

And if the Northern Lights aren’t enough to convince you to visit Iceland, these 15 photos might help.

Until next time,
Simone

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