They are caused when electrically charged particles from the sun blown on the solar wind, enter the earth's atmosphere and collide with gas atoms high in the Earth’s atmosphere. Most of the particles which reach the earth are deflected by the earth’s magnetic field. This is weakest at both poles and here some particles enter the earth's atmosphere and collide with gas particles creating the lights. (The southern lights are known as the Aurora Australis.)
The intensity of the lights depends on the level of sunspot activity. This roughly follows a 12
year cycle with 2012/2013 being predicted to be an activity peak as can be seen in the above chart which plots intensity (vertically) vs year.
The colour of light produced depends upon the type of gas atom with which the particle collides. Pale green and pink are the most common colours seen but shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been seen. The lights appear in many ways from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow.
The most common aurora, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by collisions with oxygen molecules about 110 kms above the earth. Collisions with Nitrogen produce blue or purplish-red aurora.
Most visitors to Norway have no idea that the Norwegian 200 kroner note is devoted to the Northern Lights. It portrays Kristian Birkeland (1867–1917) who was a Norwegian physicist who around 1895, tried to explain why the lights of the polar aurora appeared only in regions centred at the magnetic poles and his Terrella experiment led him to surmise that charged particles interacting with the Earth's magnetic field were the cause of the aurora.
Will I see the Northern Lights?
There are various websites which advise on the chance of you seeing the lights.
This web site presents a lot of Aurora data quite simply and gives a forecast in very simple language such as:
Auroral activity will be quiet. Weather permitting, quiet displays will be visible directly overhead in northern Iceland and Norway, and visible low on the horizon as far south as Rovaniemi, Finland and Mo i Rana, Norway.
The site also gives clear map predictions for other parts of the world.
More information than you might want to know about activity and predictions is available here including (if you hunt hard enough), the current and predicted level of solar activity (known as “the Geomagnetic Activity level – the Kp number”). Click on the links mentioning Aurora to get started on the hunt such as that here.
By finding your current location on the map above you can estimate the minimum Kp value required at that location in order for you to have a chance of seeing the lights.
There are also world maps of the current Kp value available on the web. On the date this one was copied, it shows that solar activity is low and therefore the chances of seeing the a strong Aurora Borealis anywhere in the world is not that high.In summary, the higher the level of Solar Activity, the more likely the lights are to exist and the more northerly you are, the more likely you are to see them - if they exist.
- use a tripod – this of course will not make much difference on a moving ship
- use as wide an angle lens as possible, for me that means using the basic lens which came with the camera
- try an exposure time of 30 seconds for f4.0 and 20 seconds for f2.8
- set the ISO rating on the camera to at least 800. My Nikon has a menu option to increase the effective ISO rating of the picture. If you increase the ISO to 1600 then decrease the exposure time – 10 seconds may be ok but remember the higher the ISO the more noise you will get in the picture
- turn “noise reduction” on and set white balance to auto
- set camera to RAW mode
There is a very good article here on how to take Aurora photographs and process them afterwards.
If you want to see how good the Northern
Lights can be, then this Vimeo video is rather good (it needs a bit of bandwidth to play well, so you can let it play jerkily, then play it again when it might be smooth, also turn HD off by clicking on HD).
The North Cape
Arrival and departure from the most northerly town in the world, Hammerfest, takes place with us in bed followed by breakfast, passing the MS Trollfjord heading south (exchange of foghorns), 15 minutes in Havoysund and then a short film and interesting discussion about Sami history before we have an early lunch (too early – Hurtigruten have not really got the meal arrangements sorted out properly when an activity clashes with meal times) and we dress for a visit to The North Cape scheduled immediately following our arrival at Honningsvag.
As we do so, we pass a series of isolated communities and single farm houses.
The mountains are well covered with snow and its feels really cold outside and the sun never really rises.
The North Cape (Nordkapp)
Norway has lots of live webcams and unsurprisingly there is a live webcam
of the North Cape which (on the rare days it is working) shows how uninviting the place can look on a cold, misty not over-snowy day – the above picture was taken from the webcam on a cold misty day in late October.
At the Cape there is an interpretive centre which is eye-wateringly expensive to get into at 235kr per person (2012 prices).
Dress code is “wear the warmest clothes you have” so it is a five layer job with: underwear; thermals; winter walking trousers and thick shirt; pullover; gilet; arctic padded jacket; neck warmer; thermal hat; and thick gloves.
Because it is the winter season when we are here (1st October until 30th April), the official way to get to the Cape if there is a lot of snow is to join a convoy which starts at the crossroads at Skarsvåg (which claims to be the world's northernmost fishing village) at 1230 and returns from Nordkapp at 1400. The official guide says “…The convoy includes cars if the weather permits it; booking a place in the convoy in advance is necessary. Due to weather conditions the convoy may be cancelled…..”
Today however, the snow plough and griter have already been through, the sky is clear, it is really cold, the moon has started to rise and sunset is upon us – it is of course quite late - 1 pm(!) and the coach driver sets off at an alarming speed (we assume he is used to driving on packed ice, up and down steep windy hills in the twilight) over the snowy roads out of town towards the Cape.
More snow is expected later on this afternoon.
On the way there, we pass some
stunning views of North Cape Bay
and the moon rises at about 1300.
The views at the North Cape itself are
quite amazing and we get rather a nice picture of the moon rise and a fishing boat on the cold North Cape sea.
At the Cape itself, there is a symbolic globe adjacent to which we have our photograph taken with the moon in the background,
and the Interpretation Centre which (a personal view) does little interpreting other than show a very good film about the area and sell tourist items.
For a reason which we failed to understand other than that the King of Thailand visited here, there is a Thai Museum within the centre.
There is also a detailed explanatory display related to the Murmansk Convoys which passed by during WWII, and
a series of tableaux about the discovery of the area
plus a multi-faith chapel which is rather pretty but perhaps a bit unusual to include within such a centre.
The film they show about the area is very good indeed and worth watching twice. In the summer there is a viewing platform halfway down the cliff face which you can go to through an underground passage but it is closed because it is winter and we are the only tourists there today (all nine of us).
When we get back to the Lofoten at 1500, it is dark and
snowing on the Christmas Trees which have reached their destination after a few days on our deck.
At 1700 hours (in the dark) we pass Finn-church which is said to be the most graceful sea-cliff in Norway. Accordingly we are all summoned outside on the rear flag
deck to see this cliff and a light display suddenly appears
illuminating a number of rocks of importance to the Sami people. It is quite impressive and we ask how the lights got turned on just as we arrived – the method is that when a ship gets near to the rocks, the captain sends an SMS message which turns the lights on.
Just as the lights finish, a fast speedboat comes up to the ship and someone boards the Lofoten from it. He turns out to be a King Crab fisherman who has come to show us his catch and to tell us about the mixed blessings that the King Crab brings to the region.
Four large live crabs are dumped onto a table in front of us and they proceed to scuttle (in a very slow way) around as he talks about them.
They are an invasive species making its way west from Russia and they have already killed off nine other life species in this area. However, they are worth 125NO KR (approx £15) per kilo to the fisherman and sell for about 400NO KR per kilo in Oslo. A big male crab weighs in at about 7 kg and a female crab can have up to 700,000 eggs in its lifetime. The fishing industry is trying to ensure that they stop spreading further westwards by heavily fishing them - the fear being that they will devastate the fishing grounds around the Lofoten Islands if they get there (which it seems inevitably that they will do).
The crabs get off the Lofoten at Kjollefjord and we continue north to dinner (crab is not on the menu) and the northernmost port we will visit which is Mehamn at 71 26,6 N 27 49,4 E.
When we get there, the Northern Lights are announced and they are even better than the night before with swirls and beams across the sky.
And so to bed.