Magical show is well worth the wait
HARD on the heels of my piece concerning the total eclipse of the sun which can only be seen from the Faroe Islands and Svalbard in March, I have received a number of requests for information about the Aurora Borealis, as readers look to tick this amazing natural phenomenon from their bucket-list in 2015.
The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) appear when charged particles from the Sun hit the Earth’s atmosphere.
Charged particles are formed in sunspots, which occasionally throw out solar flares (Coronal Mass Ejections CME). If those CME’s are Earth-directed, they can cause a colourful and vivid aurora display in the sky. This magical show can be seen mostly in polar areas (Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south).
The strength of the solar activity goes in cycles of roughly 11 years. The best time to view and photograph Northern Lights is close to solar maximum. During the solar maximum the number of sunspots in the Sun is significantly higher than usual. The coming weeks will see the second peak of the current solar maximum, which will give good opportunities for photographing and viewing the Northern Lights.
Having said that, the Lights are very difficult to predict, for example I have returned empty-handed from Lapland only to see them from the hills above Inverness the same week.
If a CME occurs in the Sun, the first question is if it was Earth-directed or not. If it was, then it usually takes 24-72 hours for the solar wind stream to reach Earth.
The strength of the geomagnetic activity and visibility of the Northern Lights varies a lot. It can be measured by using a Kp-index, which estimates on which latitudes the auroras are visible.
Kp-index scale is 1-10. For example, if you are travelling north of the Arctic Circle, an estimated Kp-index of three or more, it is likely there will be a ‘show’. If Kp-index reaches five or more, there is a geomagnetic storm in progress. These storms have their own scale: a Kp five geomagnetic activity is also called a G1 geomagnetic storm. Check out this site for predictions: www.swpc. noaa.gov/products/30minute-aurora-forecast.
Weather naturally determines where auroras are visible. On cloudy evenings/nights there isn’t much you can do about it.
Therefore checking the weather forecasts several times a day improves your chances. If the weather looks cloudy, prepare to drive in search for clear skies. Luckily during mid-winter (JanuaryFebruary) in Finland there is often high-pressure weather with clear skies.
Don’t get depressed because of the cloudy weather. If there is even a short clear period, auroras can be seen. On a partly-cloudy weather photographing them is also possible.
It is essential to dress up warmly for aurora hunting. You might have to wait for hours for the event to begin.
My friend Jari Peltomaki of www.finnature.com recommends the following camera gear, he also organises Northern Lights photographic trips in the High Arctic. (Worth a look for his amazing pictures).
l One or two full-frame DSLR camera bodies.
l Two lenses: a wide-angle lens (12-24 mm or similar).
l A fisheye or a lens below 35mm.
l A sturdy tripod that is easy to handle in the dark. Be careful with carbonfibre tripods as they very easily break in cold conditions.
l A ball-head (make sure that it can be tilted straight up 90 degrees to the sky above for possible aurora corona).
l A lens wipe for removing frost or moisture from the lens.
l Multiple fully-charged spare batteries for the camera (must be kept in warm pockets).
l Additional gear: a head torch, snow shoes when moving outside tracks, a flask with hot drinks.
Photographing auroras camera settings: Always use RAW-mode to preserve all details in your aurora images. White balance should be set as ‘auto’.
Knowing your camera is very important so you can adjust camera settings without having to use your head torch all the time.
Every now and then it is worth checking your settings – just to make sure you haven’t pressed the wrong buttons in the dark.
And don’t forget, if you get any pictures of the lights, please share them with the rest of us.
The Northern Lights
The Laughing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Padfield, Glossop