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The Aurora Borealis


So why did we go all the way up to the Arctic Circle at such an inhospitable time of year? Principally, to see this.

It was a last minute decision, booked only a week before boarding the flight. It’s not the most reliable time to see the lights, November can be cloudy. As it turned out, we were lucky. Very lucky. Fabulous scenery by day and, twice, one of the world’s must stunning spectacles by night.


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Aurora Borealis-2What is the Aurora Borealis?

It’s caused by electrically charged particles released from the surface of the sun during solar flares (coronal mass ejections or CMEs) which then travel across space on the ‘solar wind’, taking 2-3 days to reach the Earth. On entering the earth’s atmosphere they then react with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen, producing the waves of colour we see in the aurora. To some extent the arrival of these particles can be forecast in the short term. Reports are available online and you can be sure that I was checking them several times a day, along with the normal weather forecasts of course. The aurora occurs in the upper levels of the atmosphere so cloud cover blocks it from view entirely.

The Northern Lights can be seen in an arc, or oval, around the North Pole and generally speaking the further north you are, the better your chances of witnessing the display, even when the volume of particles generated by the flare is relatively low.

By going so far north we stood a chance of seeing the aurora at Kp level 1, on a scale of 0-9. It would take a much greater level of geomagnetic activity, between 5 and 6, to see the lights in Scotland for example. And being right under the auroral oval also meant that the Northern Lights were directly over our heads, not just on the horizon. There are Southern Lights too, but in the southern hemisphere most of the arc is over Antarctica or the sea. Therefore, unless you are a penguin, the north is the best bet!


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The waves of light build in intensity, move slowly across the sky and then fade over time


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It’s fascinating to watch

Actually, it’s awesome.


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The first night we joined a group going up to a nearby headland for a great view of the lights over the mountains. The hotel staff lit a fire and supplied spiced tea.. a clear night means that it is going to be cold. It’s taken me a while to work out what the orange light in the photos is but I think it must be the glow from Tromsø. The town is almost three hours distant by road, given the circuitous route around the fjords, but considerably less as the arctic crow flies.


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Photography is challenging. It needs a long shutter speed, 10-20 seconds and a high ISO.

All of the shots in this post by Mike.


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The aurora is more intense in photographs than we see with the naked eye, because of the long exposure. I hadn’t registered the glow from Tromsø at the time, not until we looked more closely at the images later. But it does add to the atmosphere don’t you think?


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A spark from the fire shoots off into the air


Below, a sequence which shows the development of the aurora.

If we’d had another clear night I’d have liked to have tried a time lapse..


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The best time to view the Northern Lights is said to be around the Spring or Autumn equinox in March/October and in a year when sunspot action is high. Solar activity roughly follows an 11 year cycle, with the most recent solar maximum occurring in 2014. It’ll still be good for the next year or so, but we are now on the down curve. Choose a place which is free of light pollution and avoid a full moon. With luck, you’ll get a clear sky. But even when the conditions are theoretically perfect, it’s still not guaranteed.


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Worth the gamble though, I reckon..?


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Linking to Elena (here) at BlogShareLearn, weekend Linky Party