Anyone planning to hunt for the northern lights need to head to northern Norway. Northern Norway is the prime spot for this spectacular phenomenon as the northern lights are best seen between 65°N and 75°N. This is what is called the auroral zone in Norway. In the middle of this auroral belt is where you have the highest chance of catching a glimpse of the aurora borealis and this is where northern lights hot spot Alta is located.
Alta got the name The City of Northern Lights as it is just below the Aurora Borealis Oval. The area also has a rich history when it comes to northern lights research. Majority of visitors will visit the larger city Tromsø, located south of Alta, to see the lights. However there are many advantages with choosing a smaller city, the two most obvious ones being escaping the crowds and easier access to dark areas.
What time of year can you see the northern lights?
Between mid September to late March is what we call aurora season. This is when it will get dark in the afternoon and evening – and you need darkness to be able to observe the lights. Northern lights are almost always present, day and night, but cannot be seen during daylight. And it is hardner to observe it if you have a lot of city light pollution.
Do the northern lights happen every night?
The lights are caused by charged particles from the sun hitting atoms in Earth’s atmosphere and releasing photons, it’s a process that happens constantly. So yes, northern lights happen every night. However the strength of the light will vary depending on the direction and strengt of solar winds from the sun. And remember, you also need a clear sky to see the northern lights.
Can you predict northern lights?
Yes! With todays technology scientist are able to provide short-term forecast on geomagnetic activity and where the lights will be visible. They can also provide a long-term prediction for when northern light activity is likely.
Thankfully there are several apps available nowadays that provides this information. The 3 easiest indicators to track that these apps will give you are:
Kp index: Scale to measure the geomagnetic activity both short term and long term
Ovation auroral: Model that displays the short term forecast for where the northern lights will show
Solar rotation: Long term forecast for when high geomagnetic activity is likely
I use the free app Aurora Forecast. Another option is My Aurora which is also free. Unless you work as a northern lights guide you don’t need any of the paid features. Here are a few screenshots of the aurora predictions from Aurora Forecast.
The second thing you need to check is cloud forecast, this is best done on yr.no.
Remember this is a prediction and things can change rapidly. But it gives you a good indication of your chances of seeing northern lights.
History of Northern Lights in Alta
Alta has been an important place for northern lights research. In 1839 an international expedition came to Alta to study the northern lights. When the First International Polar Year was executed 1882-1883 Alta was set up as the station from Norway contributing to the research.
Furter on, in 1899 the world’s first permanent northern lights observatory was completed in Alta. It was built on top of Mount Haldde. During summer you can hike up to Haldde and the observatory and it is also possible to stay overnight. Scientists and their families lived and did research in the observatory on Mount Haldde until 1926.
Nordlyskatedralen – The Northern Lights Cathedral
In 2013 the The Northern Lights Cathedral was opened in Alta. The church is inspired by the northern lights and is built like a spiral that swings its way up. During special occasion it is lit up and you can get some wonderful pictures. The church also hosts an interactive northern lights exhibition.
How do you photograph the northern lights?
I am by no means a professional, I still practice my skillset getting the perfect northern light photo. But I will share a few tips I have picked up. The first rule to get good northern light photos is to avoid light pollution, in other words you need to get out of the city center. Secondly you need a camera you can turn to manual mode to be able to control shutter speed, ISO and light sensitivity. You also need a tripod. Which setting to use depends on conditions – but a good starting point is f2.8 / ISO 1000/ 3 sec. Set your lens to infinity focus and you are ready.
Have you experienced the northern lights? Have you heard any myths about the northern lights? I would love to hear from you.