My experience with the elusive lady Aurora and how to find her.
I moved to the north of Sweden in September 2018, just before the Northern lights season, so I got the chance to see some amazing Auroras (how does it work and why it happens? here). I feel incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity, as seeing the Northern lights is a truly magical experience. Somehow it really hammers in the feeling, that the universe is a wondrous place and our tiny little lives are just a spot on the fabric of space.
Since I am me, that does not make me feel insignificant, but fills me with a sense of wonder instead, bringing with it a deep desire to explore and understand as much as I can during my time. Funnily enough, the knowledge that I can never know and experience everything, is enough to convince me that living life to the fullest means enjoying the small things.
Seeing the Northern lights in person
I found the perfect Aurora observation spot just behind my house in Luleå, near the river. What I usually refer to as my river is actually more of a slow water mass, a kind of a hybrid between a pond and a river between in Pörsofjärden. Whatever it is, it faces directly north just before the bend and has provided me with some incredible views over the course of my studies there. You’ll also see it frequently photographed allover my blog, as it was a beautiful sight in all seasons.
Although seeing the Northern lights in person is considered a bucket list experience, I’ve noticed that a lot of people are disappointed when they do manage to see them and they don’t think it was anything special. Since it has become a tourism thing, the Internet is full of over-saturated, horribly photoshopped images of the Northern lights, where they appear to be bright, neon green and very vivid. In reality, the shades we can see with our inadequate eyes are more subtle: most of the time you will only see a kind of a softer, paler green, which is still very beautiful, but probably not what you expected. Your camera will capture different wavelengths, so they will appear nicely green there, even on bad cameras. Unless you are very far up north in a prime location without any light pollution at all and the Aurora is extremely strong, you will not see much of the other colours. Having as little light pollution as possible is really the key to seeing any colours at all, as it just look completely white otherwise. I’ve managed to see some pink on the edges when it was particularly strong, but that was it.
Another thing that I did not expect is how fast the Aurora moves. It constantly shifts and swirls like a giant shimmering light serpent and I’ve seen it go from a full arc spanning the horizon to a vertical pillar in a matter of minutes. That also poses a problem, as you need to be patient to have a good experience. The Northern lights can last from just a few minutes to several hours and they vary in intensity all the time. Most people will wait for 10 minutes and decide that the Aurora was “just not that good today”, when in reality it could come back in fully glory within the next hour or even just behind their backs. So, good things come to those who wait: dress up warmly and don’t lose hope, as the elusive sky serpent tends to appear and disappear at will several times per night.
Below you’ll find some passable photos I’ve managed to take of my shy northern friend with my phone, but I warn you, it was less than up to the task. The photos are from 4 different nights, as even though there were many Aurora sightings during the winter, most them were not strong enough to register on my phone camera. I almost froze my fingers and feet off a few times to catch these photos, because I usually run outside rather unprepared at -20°C as soon as I saw that there was a chance of Northern lights and ended up staying outside way too long every time.
The Northern lights
In conclusion, I leave you with this quote, which sums up the feeling of seeing the Northern lights for me:
“It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.”T. Pratchett
September 2019 update
After moving out of my Swedish flat, I embarked on a huge Scandinavian trip during the summer and ended up visiting my Luleå friends again for a few days in September. I guess I was in the right place at the right time, as I got incredibly lucky and managed to see the Northern lights two days in a row in the first week of September, which is very early in the season. This time I had a much better phone camera, so here are some decent photos:
How to catch the elusive Northern lights?
If you are staying in an area with Aurora probability for a while, I recommend the My Aurora forecast app. The app tells you how high the chance of seeing it is on any given night and even has a long-term forecast based on the Kp index and geomagnetic storm activity. At least for my area, the app was spot on 90% of the time and I got to see some magnificent lights whenever the chance rose above 10-15%. It was worth going outside even when the chance was as low as 5%, as I could usually see a weaker, but still interesting Aurora. You also need to know that Auroras don’t just appear all the time during the season, as we could go weeks without seeing one.
Unless you are very far north, the Northern lights will not appear overhead, so you will need to find a dark spot with a clear view of the northern horizon like I did. The lights will likely appear quite low on the horizon, which was perfect in my case, as they showed up beautifully just above the river. When you’ve found your spot, you just need to wait, dress warmly and enjoy the show when it happens.
If you only have a limited time in the Northern lights zone, I’d suggest booking one of the expensive Aurora chasing tours, as they are usually very good at predicting the Auroras and know exactly where to take you to get the most out of it, even if it is not a strong one. For some reason the Northern lights usually appeared rather early (10 pm – 1 am) and most often during the weekends, but I guess it is different every year, so check the forecast before deciding when to book. The Northern lights season is usually from mid-September to April, with peak season in between November and January, when the sky is darkest. I saw my last winter one in the beginning of April 2019, but it was very weak.