There’s huge excitement in Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) hunting circles right now. The Lights are historically at their most frequent and spectacular when the sun reaches the peak of its 11 year activity cycle known as Solar Maximum and experts are predicting this will happen during the winter of 2013/2014.
Unfortunately, those experts haven’t exactly covered themselves in forecasting glory lately because they also predicted that Solar Maximum would occur in May 2013 and Autumn 2013. Basically, this Solar Maximum has left a lot of sun gazing scientists with considerable quantities of egg, whole omelettes in fact, on their faces because the problem with predicting Mother Nature is Mother Nature’s own unpredictability. The sun has been around for billions of years but the human race has only been monitoring its behaviour for the merest fraction of that time. Hence, despite all our modern day technology and data capture facilities, forecasting the peak of our star’s current activity cycle has proved itself to be an inaccurate science.
Just to confuse you further, NASA has updated its prediction on the coming Solar Maximum and has announced there will be a double-peak. This means there will be two peaks with a high level of sun spots and solar flare. The first of the peaks will occur as previously predicted in late 2013 (we’re still waiting so best make that early 2014) and this will be followed by a second twin peak in 2015. According to NASA, this is known as a mini cycle which will last for around 2 years.
In further depth, NASA’s prediction is based on the number of sunspots originating on our star’s surface and, as the name would suggest, Solar Maximum is when the frequency of sunspots peaks. Here is how the number of Spot-LESS days has totted up over the last few winters:
Current Stretch: 0 days
2014 total: 0 days (0%)
2013 total: 0 days (0%)
2012 total: 0 days (0%)
2011 total: 2 days (<1%)
2010 total: 51 days (14%)
2009 total: 260 days (71%)
Source: www.spaceweather.com (updated on 02 Jan 14)
In the media there was huge speculation that this Solar Maximum would be the strongest for 50 years but NASA is now predicting a weak maximum. Nevertheless, Solar Maximum means the Northern Lights will be at their best this winter and next and we’ve already seen many a stunning skies in the Auroral Zone since the darker nights kicked in at the end of August 2013. Indeed, New Year 2014 was welcomed in many parts of Northern Scandinavia by not just fireworks but Auroras blazing across the night sky. We like to think that is a portent of things to come.
All this solar activity has got professional Aurora chasing photographers like Antti Pietikainen in Finnish Lapland very, very excited indeed and with good reason when you look at the image he captured way back in Autumn 2011 (more than two years before Solar Maximum!!!).
“Last year’s Autumn Draconoids meteor shower peaked with full sky Auroras. First two centimeters of snow and I was at my cabin in the forest. I set the camera straight up against the aspen on the cabin yard. I had a break from sauna and almost slipped at the porch when I saw the sky on fire. I could stay out only a couple of minutes because I was barefoot on the winter's first snow.”
If it was that good then, what will Solar Maximum bring? That’s if it ever decides to turn up of course!
When and where to see the Aurora
One of the most frequently asked questions we receive is “when and where is it best to see the Aurora?”
Well, there are two things that obscure or dull the Aurora Borealis; cloud and light pollution. We tackle both of these at The Aurora Zone.
In the Arctic, artificial light is generally related to population density so we’ve stayed well clear of the more heavily populated areas to help you see the best Aurora displays. You may well see many pictures of the likes of Tromsø (population 55,000) with the Northern Lights swirling over the city but remember that those images were taken from outside the city. If you are standing in the centre of all that man-made light pollution, the display will be considerably diminished.
In terms of the best time to see the Aurora, well that is a hard one. The Lights are present all year around but can only be seen during the darker months between September and April. There are various theories as to when they are most frequent but even the scientists can’t predict their arrival with any accuracy more than two hours beforehand.
Basically, any time from autumn through to spring will give you a good chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis as long as you are not impeded by blanket cloud cover. We obviously can’t guarantee cloud-free skies at any time and that these will coincide with an Aurora display, but we’ll use all of our local knowledge and experience to help show you the Lights. On some of our more active holidays however you will be mobile enough to hopefully out run the weather.
The science bit
The Northern Lights originate 91,000,000 miles away when solar flares hurl high energy particles into space. Clouds of these particles are known as plasma and streams of plasma are, in turn, known as solar wind.
When the solar wind meets the Earth’s magnetic field some of the particles are trapped and dragged down until they collide with the gases in the Ionosphere. This collision causes the particles to glow creating what we know as the Northern Lights.
The Lights’ movement which causes them to stream, arc, billow, swirl and flicker in the night sky is caused by the interaction of the Earth’s magnetic field with the solar winds.
Different gases predominate at certain altitudes within the Earth’s atmosphere and the type of gas determines the colour of the Aurora. Myriad shades of green and, to a lesser extent, yellow are the most common colours because the majority of incoming particles collide with oxygen at an altitude of around 100km. Multi-hued reds, purples, pinks, blues and violets appear less frequently as they are created by the particles colliding with lower lying Nitrogen molecules below 100km. Possibly the most spectacular Northern Lights occur when the particles collide with high altitude oxygen (200km) creating a blue or vivid red Aurora.
Brains, know-how and native intelligence
Forecasting the Northern Lights is an unpredictable business which is why many Laplanders call them “The Temperamental Lady”. Even geophysicists are unable to accurately predict the Aurora Borealis much more than two hours in advance.
In our opinion, the best judges are the locals and their knowledge is one of the most important factors in tracking down the Aurora.We always employ local guides on our Aurora Zone holidays because nobody knows the terrain and environment better and they have an almost intangible sense of when and where the Lights will appear. They live and work within The Aurora Zone and have a unique understanding of what makes the Aurora tick and where to see the Lights.
Our senior product manager, Jo Doran, always recalls her very first conversation with Jouko Lappalainen who owns the Nellim Wilderness Hotel.
Jo: “Do you think we’ll see the Northern Lights tonight Jouko?”
Jouko: “I think so, at about 10.10pm.”
And a few hours later:
Jo: (watching her first ever Aurora at 10.12pm): “Wow!”
We think this short conversation illustrates how important local knowledge is in the quest to see the Northern Lights. You’ll always need a little bit of luck when searching for the Aurora but a local guide will give you a distinct advantage.
The Aurora Borealis is a naturally occurring phenomenon and even top space scientists acknowledge that their appearance is difficult to predict. You’ll always need a bit of luck when hunting for the Northern Lights but, over the years, we’ve found what we think are the very best Northern Lights hot spots.
We’ve discussed this long and hard with our partners in the North and come up with a formula for seeking out Nature’s free light show ensuring that we maximise your chances of ticking the Aurora Borealis off your wish list.
1. Avoid Light Pollution
All of our Aurora hunting holidays are situated in destinations with very low population densities.
For example, many people cite Tromsø as a great place to see the Northern Lights. It is, but you have to get outside the city to see a full blown Aurora unobscured by the light pollution created by around 55,000 residents. The same applies to the large ski resorts and getting outside their confines can be an expensive business.
In the destinations we feature, you may well be able to see a clear and magical Aurora by simply stepping outside your accommodation or taking a short walk down to a frozen lake.
2. Local guides
Local knowledge of the winter terrain, the best Aurora viewpoints and the local weather pattern is absolutely crucial. Our partners in Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden live and work in the Auroral Zone. You don’t get that with a representative flown over from the UK.
This is key to our Northern Lights holidays, especially those where you will be out and about hunting down the Aurora.
3. The Auroral Zone
All of our Northern Lights holidays are situated slap, bang in the middle of Northern Europe’s Auroral Zone and have excellent Aurora sighting records.
4. Aurora Alerts – The leisurely way to search for the Aurora
On our more leisurely or less active Aurora hunting holidays in Luosto, Finland, we supply you with an “Aurora Alert”. About 30km down the road in Sodankylä there’s the Geophysical Observatory where some seriously clever people are constantly monitoring the night sky.
On arrival at your hotel, you will be given an “Aurora Alert”, basically a mobile phone, and when the scientists at the Observatory detect the Aurora in the Luosto night sky, you will receive a text message alerting you to its presence.
The rest is up to you. It may be possible to see the Lights from your own bedroom but it is far better to get wrapped up and outside as quickly as possible. Regardless, it’s a very clever way of improving your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis.
5. Mobility – Escape the Aurora-obscuring cloud cover
If there is heavy cloud cover where you are staying then you will not see the Aurora, it’s as simple as that. Mobility is key to escaping the cloud and seeing truly great Auroras.
On our more active Aurora hunts, you will be out and about at night pursuing the Northern Lights. This might be on a snowmobile or in a heated minibus but one way or another our guides will be doing their absolute best to give you the advantage over other Aurora ‘wish listers’.
6. Aurora Borealis Holiday to suit all tastes
Not everybody wants to head out into the Arctic night in sub-zero temperatures so we’ve created four levels of Aurora hunting holidays ranging from “Leisurely” to “Very Active”.