Whilst we are waiting to photograph the aurora at one our beautiful locations in Abisko National Park our guides often find themselves answering the two questions below more often than others. I’m not writing this to stop the questions: we love it when our guests ask us about the science behind the aurora, how to photograph the aurora, or any other general questions about life here deep inside of the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden.
That said, I want to sew a seed that may help you to enjoy your aurora adventure in Abisko with us just a little bit a little more.
1. When will I be able to see the aurora clearly?
The aurora can appear in many different strengths, sometimes predictable due to the scientific data we glean from our favourite website spaceweather.com. At other times, the aurora forecast will call for very little activity and we can be treated to big dancing auroras, purely because we are watching the aurora from our geographicly lucky position in Abisko National Park.
A weak aurora usually builds in strength and becomes brighter one as the evening progresses, so what you may be first seeing as a silvery colour or ribbon, can soon develop into a brighter and easier to see arc or even a dance. It can also go totally crazy in a matter of seconds, from a mere shimmer to a sky exploding with intense coronas. Abisko is situated approximately 200km north of the Arctic Circle so your chances of seeing brighter auroras when the forecasts are calm are a lot higher than destinations like Iceland where you are further south.
There are two factors that can effect how you see the aurora: the quality of your night vision and light pollution.
I’ve discovered that my night vision is often very different to the person I’m stood next to. This isn’t necessarily age specific, but more on the health of my sight. I’ve probably spent too much time staring at screens when I should be outside taking photographs. That’s likely the same as nearly every person that visits us in Abisko to see the aurora. How you see the aurora could vary to that of your travel partner and even every one around you, (more of this covered in section 2).
The other main factor that can cause the aurora to be difficult to see is light pollution, whether manmade or natural. A full moon reflecting on snow can light up the landscape beautifully but if the aurora is very weak, it can detract from the visibility of it. It does however look spectacular on camera.
The more distance you can put yourself from large towns and cities with light pollution, the better. Luckily for our guests, Abisko has a year round population of 86, so aside from some weak residual light there is not a huge effect on our beautiful clear skies. We believe that this is another one of many factors that makes Abisko one of the best places on Earth to see the northern lights.
In theory, the calmer the aurora forecast then the less bright it will appear. However even when it’s calm there can still be a huge aurora show brewing, it just takes longer to build when the protons that cause it are travelling slower than normal.
Sometimes, the aurora can be so calm that you can only see it using a camera and it can be so difficult to locate that you need a guide with an experienced eye to help you find it. We see this as yet another reason for choosing an operator with well trained guides and included camera as they can spot an aurora when others may miss it! As you might have guessed, Lights Over Lapland’s guides have seen countless auroras and are sure to be able to help you spot even the weakest aurora.
So, if you’re stood watching your first aurora display and it isn’t as bright as you hoped for, give it a few minutes to develop as there is a very good chance it can build into something that is much more impressive and easy to see.
2. Why isn’t the aurora green?
Simply put, most auroras are green. That would be the shortest and scientifically correct answer, (there are other colours of the aurora but green is the most commonly observed and relevant colour to this question). However, it doesn’t always appear green to our eyes. Sometimes it can be silvery in appearance, or even a strange hue of grey or white, however if you point a camera at it, you will usually see green pop out from the sky.
As stated above, all of our eyes differ and we have tested this theory by asking our groups when out on tour as to what colours they can see. Out of ten people, it is not uncommon for eight people to clearly see green, and for the remaining two people to only see it as white or silver. This has nothing to do with colour blindness but more of a night blindness to colour. For my first three seasons I wore a bright yellow jacket for the whole winter. The yellow was visible indoors and on camera. As soon as I was out in the dark, I just became a grey blob that taught aurora photography and guided our guests in the dark. Fortunately I’m quite loud so my guests can always find me, but humans and colour at night don’t always work well together!
My theory is, when humans became active hunters, we rarely hunted at night. Instead we hid in caves, rolling a big rock against the entrance to keep any of the predators with better vision than ours out of our homes. We are therefore pretty useless at night without the use of a light source.
Using a camera to view the aurora also enhances your colour vision. Our eye is unbeatable in daylight, however a camera at night can absorb so much more light in one image that they become an invaluable tool. This is a major consideration when choosing which aurora tour to join: we believe that having a camera is an invaluable part of every aurora watchers tool kit, whether they are into photography or not.
If you think our optic nerve is processing everything we see instantly, and then relaying that data to our brains to allow us to see the image that we are seeing right now. It all happens in a microsecond. So a camera pointing at the night-sky for 15 seconds can record so much more light than our eyes can, the auroras and therefore colours become more visible.
If you are lucky enough to see a geomagnetic storm during your time hunting the aurora in Abisko then you have a much better chance of observing brighter and more colourful auroras. Joining a photographic tour not only gives you good quality images taken by yourself of the aurora, but can also help you find and locate calm auroras when the untrained eye can’t. All of Light Over Lapland’s Aurora Tours always include photography equipment and expert tuition so you can be reassured to have the best chance you can of seeing the aurora in all her glory!