While the current 11-year sunspot cycle peaked in 2013 there’s still a great chance to see the Northern Lights over the next couple of years. In this updated post I’ll share my top tips for seeing the aurora and being prepared when the conditions are just right !
I suspect like many people, seeing the northern lights was near the top of my bucket list for many years. It’s certainly not a common sight but spectacular and absolutely jaw-dropping when the ‘dancing lights’ do make an appearance.
In Scotland’s mid-latitude location the northern lights are quite often seen as a faint glow just above the horizon. We tend not to see amazing displays directly overhead or to see the fast-moving lights that can be seen in higher latitudes such as Alaska, Northern Canada and Northern Scandinavia. However, in Februrary 2013 I booked a trip to Tromso, one of the best places in Europe to see the northern lights, and was lucky enough to see fantastic displays on three our the four nights of my stay. You can read more about my trip to Tromso as well as to the nearby Lyngen Alps on my blog. I joined aurora trips led by Kjetil Skogli (one of the best-known ‘aurora chasers’ and the guide that finally allowed Joanna Lumley to see the northern lights in the excellent BBC documentary of 2008), and learned such a lot about how to look for the lights and how to photograph them.
Since then I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to seen the northern lights from near my home in Central Scotland on many occasions. While there’s clearly a lot of luck involved – an aurora doesn’t always happen at night time when you want it to ! – as you’ll see from my tips below, good preparation counts for a lot.
What are the Northern Lights ?
The northern lights – or the aurora borealis – are caused by solar storms colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field and creating charged particles generating dazzling light. When sunspot activity is high, clouds of gas are emitted from the sun (called a coronal mass ejection), taking about 2 to 3 days to reach Earth. When a coronal mass ejection collides with the magnetic field, currents of charged particles flow along lines of magnetic force into the polar regions. The particles combine with gases to generate auroral light with oxygen producing greenish light (the most common) and nitrogen producing reddish or sometimes bluish light. When the particles flow along the magnetic fields the northern lights appear as ‘curtains’, which appear to move in a strong display. Other forms include arcs, shafts of light stretching high into the sky or coronas appearing overhead.
For those keen to increase their chances of viewing the Northern Lights in Scotland here are my top 10 tips:
1. Choose the right location
Since even a strong aurora is not as strong as the full moon you need to head for a location with as little light pollution as possible. You’re looking for dark skies with a clear view of as much of the sky as possible. Weaker auroras viewed from the UK can frequently be seen as arcs at a fairly low angle above the horizon, although it’s not uncommon to see vertical shafts of light at higher angles reaching 100 – 500 miles high. Try to pick a location with an interesting foreground which will make for better photos. It’s a good idea to scout out possible locations in daylight so when you’re in a hurry in the darkness so you know exactly where you’re going.
2. Be in a northerly location – or take a trip north
Higher latitudes offer better chances of seeing the lights, as highlighted on this map of the best sites for auroral photography in the UK. That’s great if you live in Shetland or Aberdeen but don’t worry, since during strong auroral displays there have been good sightings even as far south as Norfolk and South Wales during this current solar maximum. Even if you don’t live in the north of Scotland, good preparation can increase your chances of seeing an aurora. And you could also consider taking a short trip north …
Read my post on the best places to see the northern lights in Scotland.
3. Track aurora forecasts
Aurora Watch UK is the best site to monitor geomagnetic activity for the UK/Scotland. They have a system of alerts (eg green = no significant activity through to red = likely that aurora will be visible from everywhere in the UK), which are circulated from their website, Twitter and their Facebook site. The latter is a great way of monitoring other people’s sightings around the country. [October 2013 update: the AuroraWatch monitor in Deeside is currently out of action, and alerts are coming from Lancaster. The monitor should be up and running again during Nov/Dec which should give more accurate readings, particularly for aurora watchers in Scotland.]
Aurora forecasts use a simple index called Kp, a number from 0 to 9, which refers to geomagnetic activity over a 3-hour period. Anything over 5 is at ‘Storm’ level (ie meaning that aurora are potentially visible as far south as Central and Southern Scotland).
You can check estimated planetary Kp levels on the Aurora Watch UK app, the US NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, AuroraSpy (which gives a cloud forecast) and SolarHam (also on Facebook and Twitter). I personally use the Solar Monitor app on my iPhone most frequently, which also gives ‘push’ notifications (alerts).
4. Be aware of the moon’s cycle
Just as street lighting and other light pollution will affect how clearly you can see the northern lights, the strength of the moon is also a factor. Some people suggest avoiding the full moon when planning a trip to view the aurora; while weaker, however, the aurora is still visible when there is a full moon. In fact, some moonlight is beneficial for photography, highlighting the foreground to show landscape as well as the sky as described in this useful blog post.
5. Understand the 28-day rotational cycle of the sun
A useful tip for predicting future sightings of the northern lights is to mark your calendar 27 or 28 days after each solar storm. This is because the sun rotates on its axis every 27-28 days. If a sunspot (a coronal hole) is emitting gas then it is likely to also be active the next time it is facing Earth.
6. Be out between 10pm – 2am (and be patient)
While the northern lights can be seen as soon as it becomes dark right through to dawn, the period from 10pm to 2am is the favoured time for seeing them. Geomagnetic activity often happens in ‘waves’ where auroral displays strengthen then subside before strengthening again. This means you need to be patient !
7. Know how to use your camera … before you head out
There’s nothing worse than being in an ideal location to see a spectucular display only to be fiddling with your camera settings not knowing what to do. Once again, preparation and practice are key – you can’t afford to waste precious time out on a cold hillside when the lights decide to shine brightly.
This good article and video below give clear instructions on the right settings you need. You really need an SLR camera capable of taking long exposures (between 5 to 60 seconds). You might want to start with a 30 second exposure and then experiment with shorter and longer periods. You’ll see that the advice varies, so know how to use your camera and experiment with different settings.
8. Take ‘test’ photos event when you can’t see anything with the naked eye
In contrast to the likes of Alaska and Northern Scandinavia, within the Arctic Circle, aurorae are weaker in Scotland. But just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean that there’s no activity. It’s worth setting up your camera on its tripod and taking a few test shots with long exposures – you may just then be able to see a greenish glow in the sky otherwise invisible to the naked eye. If so, you might just want to stick around a little longer.
9. Wrap up warm
It goes without saying that waiting around outside in potentially freezing temperatures for hours on end will become uncomfortable after a while. Again, be prepared. Wrap up warm, take a flask of hot drinks, take some handwarmers … whatever you need to make your efforts just a little more comfortable.
10. Pray for clear skies !
Last but certainly not least, you need as little cloud cover as possible to have the best chance of seeing the northern lights. There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing there’s an amber or red alert, yet Scotland being covered by a blanket of cloud (which so often seems to happen). So fingers crossed and keep trying !
Kjetil Skogli, Aurora Chaser based in Tromso
Post updated October 2015