Hunting for Northern Lights

Witnessing the beauty of the Aurora Borealis, or also known as the Northern Lights, is something that I hope everyone can experience. The first time that I saw the Aurora, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of joy. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or jump that I did all of those at the same time. Since then, I made it a point to monitor the status and forecast of the Aurora so that I can see it again. Living in Finland gives me plenty of chances to catch a of glimpse of this divine phenomena. Considering that I live in the Southern part of Finland, within 5 years, I saw the Aurora already close to 10 times.

When can I see it?

Some people have an impression that the Aurora occurs only during winter. Truth is, it can happen at any season even during summer and at any time (day or night). However, the reason why most of the Aurora photos you see were taken during the dead of winter is because it’s dark enough for us to see them.

In Finland, the months that have longer periods of darkness would be October to March. In other months, it’s either too bright or the nights are shorter.

Is it dark enough?

One of the websites that I check for times of darkness is timeanddate.com. With a given city, you will be able to see the table of the day, night, and twilight times of the current day.

Knowing the time of darkness enables you to prepare and schedule your Aurora hunting. The best state to see the Aurora is, of course, during the night. However, I have also witnessed them in astronomical twilight, and even in nautical twilight in times when the Aurora was strong.

Even a full moon can contribute to the light pollution, so in addition to checking the times of darkness, also consider the current phase of the moon.

Forecasts

Before even attempting to go out and hunt for Auroras, you should definitely have a look at the forecasts first.

Kp-index / Planetary Index

This value, which scales from 0 to 9, is one of the most important ones you should be monitoring. This is an indicator of the magnitude of geomagnetic storms that are caused by solar flare activities. Basically, it will give you an idea on how active the Aurora is or will be because the stronger the geomagnetic storm is, the higher the Kp, which means stronger Aurora. Here’s a table of the mapping between geomagnetic storm levels and Kp:

Geomagnetic Storm Level Kp Level
G0 Kp3
G1 Kp5
G2 Kp6
G3 Kp7
G4 Kp8
G5 Kp9

It can also serve as a guide on how far, based on latitude, the Aurora will be visible. NOAA has a map of different areas around the globe for you to assess the Aurora coverage per Kp value.

Since currently I’m located in Europe, particularly in Finland, I refer to this map by Aurora Service Europe.

For monitoring the forecasts for the Kp level, here are the websites that I find useful:

“Long Term”
3-Day Forecast by NOAA

Short Term
Soft Serve News
Aurora Service Europe

Current (And Past)
Auroras Now! by Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) for Finland
Planetary K-index page by NOAA

NOAA keeps a history of the Kp-indices since 1996. If you’re curious, you can check them out by parsing to a certain year then “plots” directory then “kp”. These were the Kp-indices when I witnessed very strong overhead Aurora activities that reached as far as the southern part of Finland.

Ovation (GW)

Ovation is the other thing that you should take note of when hunting for the Aurora. Like the Kp, it can also be used to determine where the Aurora will be visible. In addition, you can use the ovation as an indicator for the Aurora’s density or brightness. It is measured in gigaWatts (GW) and scales from 5 to 150. The higher the number, the better the ovation, which means better Aurora visibility. The ideal values would be 50 and above, but depending on your location, 20-50 may still be acceptable. Soft Serve News created maps of North America and Europe with sample ovation values. It helps visualize how far the Aurora can be seen based on the ovation value.

For monitoring the ovation, NOAA provides a 20 to 40 minute forecast along with color-coded representation of the magnitude of the ovation power. If the map shows thin or almost transparent green shade, the Aurora is less likely to be visible. If it has thick shades of green and yellow, then there’s a higher chance for the Aurora to be visible. But if you see the map showing colors of orange, and especially red then the Aurora will definitely be visible and even be multi-colored. The forecast time and ovation hemispheric power is shown at the upper right-hand corner of the ovation map.

Soft Serve News has this handy tool that enables you to plot your GPS location, which then gives you the ovation overhead forecast.

Weather

Let’s not forget the weather, for even if the Kp and ovation are high, the presence of thick clouds can still crush your plans. Ideally, skies should be clear, but if it’s partly cloudy, there may still be a chance of it peering through the clouds.

In Finland, there are all-sky cameras set up by FMI in different cities for the purpose of checking out the current weather and Aurora activity. It’s very useful for me because I can find out whether I should even attempt to go out or not by viewing the specific camera closer to my location.

Forecast Alerts

There are apps that can alert you of upcoming Aurora activities, but so far I found the Aurora alerts by Soft Serve News to be most reliable. They offer alerts customized to your chosen location, and the alert can be sent via email that includes information such as Kp forecast, ovation and % of cloud cover. It costs $3.10 (or €2,95) a month.

Should I go out now?

Based on the weather, darkness, Kp, and ovation, you should be able to know if the likelihood of witnessing the Aurora is high. As for me, I look at the cameras from FMI. Sometimes, I visit the local Skywatchers website to check if someone reported an Aurora sighting.

If the chances are high for you to see the Aurora, go out soon as you can because the Aurora does not and will not wait for you. Most of the time, the Aurora shows up intermittently so it might be that by the time you go out, it’s already over and you’ll have to wait again. As you probably can tell, it takes a lot of patience when hunting for the Aurora. Also, be prepared to stay up late. Sometimes, it shows up way past midnight (around 2am to 4 am).

Oh, and since it’s going to be cold outside, and most likely you’ll be staying out for a while, make sure you wear warm clothing. Don’t let the cold ruin your experience.

Where will I go to see the Aurora?

The location should definitely be away from the city to avoid the light pollution. The darker the place is, the better visibility you will have for the Aurora. But if the Aurora is strong, you’ll definitely see it even with street lights surrounding you.

So where will you go? Go as far north as possible. Here in Europe, that place would be Tromsø, Norway. They actually have an all-sky camera too, provided by NOSWE. Even if the Kp is as low as 2 or 3, provided that the ovation is close to 20, you’ll be able to see it from there.

Another option in Europe is Iceland. It is conveniently located at the right latitude that based on the Kp map, Kp 3 covers the entire country! I suppose that if you go there, you can basically look for any dark place to view the Aurora.

Here in Finland, there are also different cities from where you can have higher chances of witnessing the Aurora – Ivalo, Kittilä, Sodankylä, etc. So far, I’ve only gone to three cities – Levi, Rovaniemi, and Espoo. Most of the time though, I’m in Espoo because that’s where I live. Although it’s in the southern part of Finland, it’s still possible to see the Aurora from here. If the Kp is 5 or higher, with ovation of at least 40, then we drive to Oittaa and walk towards Murhaniemi, which has a small beach facing North.

Address:
Oittaantie 1
02740 Espoo

Here’s a photo taken from that beach.

And a video taken from the same beach.

When I went north, particularly to Rovaniemi, the tourist center advised me to go to Vikaköngäs. It has a hiking trail and it can get really dark at night. There was chopped wood available for people to use to build fire. The fire added to the light pollution, so I had to walk a bit further for my eyes to adjust, but it helped keep me warm afterwards. In Rovaniemi, if Kp is at least 4, then you’ll definitely see the Aurora, provided of course that it’s not cloudy.

Address:
Sodankyläntie 2478
97510 Rovaniemi

Here’s a photo taken from there.

Levi is the most northern place I’ve been to, so far. We drove up the hill by the ski slopes and parked there, then walked up further to reach the top of the hill. The view was amazing both in the morning and evening. It was damn cold and windy, though. In Levi, Kp 3 is good enough for you to catch the Aurora.

Address:
Tunturitie 428
99130 Kittilä

Here is a photo taken from the hill.

Feel free to check these places out when you’re in Finland!

How about you? Where’s your Aurora viewing spot?

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