Experience the Northern Lights in Norway
The northern lights are a science enthusiast’s dream. Even those not interested in the science behind the phenomenon have the northern lights on their bucket list. They have fascinated people from the earliest recorded times with the lights mentioned in writing by Aristotle and others. Intense study of the phenomenon occurred in the 17th century and this is how information was gathered to explain the aurora borealis.
It was a physicist from Norway named Kristian Birkeland who created a comprehensive theory of the northern lights. His research and development of his theory became the basis of modern research into the northern light. It is an area that continues to fascinate scientists. NASA even produced an experiment that successfully recreated the phenomenon in the laboratory in 2013.
The Aurora Borealis or the northern lights are created when electrically charged particles originating from the sun collide with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The magnetic field of the Earth moves these particles towards the North and South Poles and this is why the lights can only be seen from close to the magnetic poles. The Aurora Australis or the southern lights are visible closest to the South Pole so best viewed from Antarctica or the southern parts of Australia, New Zealand and South America.
The lights are not always the same colour, which makes then an exciting and ever changing phenomenon to see. The colour emitted depends on the gases the particles have come into contact with in the Earth’s atmosphere. It also depends on where in the atmosphere the collision between the particles and gases took place. The simplest way to categorise this is determined by scientific observations and roughly: if the collision occurred more than 150 kms from the surface of the Earth, it will be red light; if it occurred between 120km and 150km it will be yellow-green light; if it is less than 120 km, it will be blue-purple light.
The northern lights are also influenced by the sun’s activity such as solar winds. Strong solar winds can intensify the northern lights. Norway is an excellent place to try to view the lights because the darkness of the polar night makes them more prominent in the sky.
To see the northern lights it needs to be very dark, cloudless and it can be an activity that takes time. You may not see them the moment you get there, but if you persist you may be lucky and get very good views of the northern lights. The best months to see the lights are October, February and March. The weather is usually the most significant obstacle to seeing the northern lights. There is a greater chance of stable winter weather inland and in the inner reaches of the fjords.
Light pollution from buildings and roads may degrade the viewing experience, so try to find viewing areas away from sources of light. The full moon may have the same effect, but may actually help you if you plan to take photographs. The moonlight may light up the foreground and surroundings and make it easier to focus and get a clear image. I asked an expert about what is needed to get the best photographs of the northern lights. Because as amazing as it would be to see them, you also want to capture some photographs!
Tripod; Camera; Lenses – wide angle 14-24 mm, narrow view 70-200 mm.
Use the tripod as you will not be able to hold the camera steady for the amount of time needed to get a clear shot;
Camera setting on full manual;
The F point is about 2.8;
Shutter speed to be adjusted to between 5-15 seconds;
Use a remote for the shutter release (there are apps for your phone that can be connected to the camera through Wi-Fi and a remote shutter release can be done);
Use a strong background – not flat landscape but trees, mountains etc in the background;
Can use light painting techniques;
Meet our guide: Darren Smith
Darren has led the tour to Norway 8 times. He and the group have been lucky on each visit and have seen the Northern Lights. I had a chat to him about how he prepares for a tour and his experiences in Norway.
How do you prepare for a tour?
It’s more about making sure clients have all the information, everything is booked and the kit is prepared. The kit is made up of Merino thermals, socks, inner and outer layers etc.
Do you need to check to see what the weather may be like?
At this time of year the weather is quite settled, it is high pressure cold which is best for seeing the lights.
Has anyone ever come completely unprepared for the cold?
I had someone come wearing canvas shoes before (sailing shoes)! Fortunately even if someone in the group is not fully prepared, there are kits for usage that contain all the required clothing for extreme weather. For the activities such as snowmobiles/dog sledding etc, the providers usually want their own kit to be used even if we all our have our kits.
The extreme cold can affect the enjoyment of the experience and we do everything we can to ensure that all clients have access to the gear needed to be protected from the cold. We want them to be able to focus on enjoying the experience rather than on how cold they are.
Can you describe the northern lights for people that have not seen them? Is it something that everyone just has to see once?
It’s a magical experience; it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The colours are not just green like many of the photos – it can be red, purple, and orange – many colours. It’s hard to describe, you do need to see it to understand it.