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HomeSpits­ber­gen infor­ma­ti­on → Nort­hern light

Nort­hern light

Nort­hern light, polar light, Auro­ra borea­lis – wha­te­ver you want to call it, it is always a magi­cal expe­ri­ence to see it on the dark night sky in high lati­tu­des. In the sou­thern hemi­s­phe­re, the sou­thern light is of cour­se the Auro­ra aus­tra­lis, not borea­lis. The magic of the auro­ra has always fasci­na­ted peop­le: they used to con­si­der them a bad omen in the past, mes­sen­gers of war and dis­as­ter, a sign of anci­ent Gods or dan­cing souls of decea­sed ances­tors. Today we know the auro­ra is just phy­sics, but it is still a tou­ch­ing expe­ri­ence, just as it was in the past. Today, tou­rists and pho­to­graph­ers are tra­vel­ling around the glo­be to see it.

360 degree pan­ora­ma: night sky with auro­ra borea­lis near mine 7

But it is a mat­ter of being at the right place at the right time. The assump­ti­on the clo­ser to the geo­gra­phi­cal pole the bet­ter is wrong. The magne­tic field of the earth is not ori­en­ta­ted towards the geo­gra­phi­cal pole (90 degrees lati­tu­de, the axis of the earth), but towards the magne­tic poles, which are many hund­red miles away from their geo­gra­phi­cal coun­ter­parts. But even that is not qui­te right. The earth’s magne­tic field is, in fact, qui­te a chao­tic thing. It is always dis­tur­bed by local ano­ma­lies, which are abundant.

The magne­tic field cat­ches the solar wind: electri­cal­ly char­ged par­ti­cles that are ejec­ted by the sun into space. The­se par­ti­cles are gui­ded by the magne­tic field lines and thus enter the hig­her atmo­s­phe­re of the earth’s polar are­as. The­re, they hit atmo­s­phe­ric gas mole­cu­les and sti­mu­la­te them to emit light at a defi­ned wav­elength, which trans­la­tes as a given colour. This is what we see as polar light. The pro­cess hap­pens in the stra­to­s­phe­re, bet­ween 20 and 30 km in height. The­re are several colour opti­ons, green is the most com­mon one, fol­lo­wed by red.

Polar night and northern light in Adventdalen

Polar night and a rela­tively weak nort­hern light in Advent­da­len, Lon­gye­ar­by­en in the distance. 24 mm, 10 sec. expo­sure time, f 3.2, ISO 800.

Becau­se of the spa­ti­al struc­tu­re of the magne­tic field, which is qui­te irre­gu­lar as men­tio­ned abo­ve, the nort­hern light is more abundant in some are­as than in others. It is stron­ger and more fre­quent in nort­hern Nor­way, Swe­den and Finn­land than in Spits­ber­gen. Ice­land and Green­land are also good pla­ces to obser­ve the auro­ra.

A few con­di­ti­ons have to be met. Obvious­ly it has to be dark. In Spits­ber­gen, the­re is enough darkness to see the auro­ra star­ting in mid Sep­tem­ber, get­ting to opti­mum con­di­ti­ons in Octo­ber. In late win­ter, the nort­hern light sea­son comes to an end in late March. And of cour­se you need a clear sky, other­wi­se the Gods may dance to exhaus­ti­on and you won’t see it, obvious­ly. Some­ti­mes they say the col­der the bet­ter, but the­re is no direct con­nec­tion bet­ween ground tem­pe­ra­tures and the phy­sics of the atmo­s­phe­re 20 km and hig­her abo­ve the sur­face. But of cour­se, clear win­ter nights tend to be cold.

Northern light. Scoresbysund, East Greenland

A few thin clouds may actual­ly pro­vi­de inte­res­ting views. Scores­by­sund, East Green­land, mid Sep­tem­ber. 24 mm, 0.5 sec., f 1.4, ISO 12800. The came­ra was stan­ding on a boat that was ancho­red. It was calm but still, a rela­tively fast shut­ter speed was cru­cial.

Strong sun acti­vi­ty is ano­t­her requi­re­ment, becau­se without sun acti­vi­ty no solar wind and without solar wind no polar light. The­re is a maxi­mum of sun acti­vi­ty every 11 years, the last one was in 2013, so it will take a while again now to get to the next maxi­mum pha­se of acti­vi­ty. That doesn’t mean that we won’t see anything mean­while. Just a bit lower fre­quen­cy and a bit less inten­si­ty. But that is sta­tis­tics. Gre­at things can hap­pen any­ti­me. At times of maxi­mum acti­vi­ty, nort­hern lights have actual­ly been seen in cen­tral Euro­pe and even the Medi­ter­ra­ne­an.

Polar night and northern light near Longyearbyen

Strong nort­hern light abo­ve Advent­fjord at a time of pro­noun­ced sun acti­vi­ty, pho­to­gra­phed near Lon­gye­ar­by­en. Janu­a­ry 2014. 24 mm, 2.2 sec. expo­sure time, f 3.2, ISO 1600.

Octo­ber or Febru­a­ry are good sea­sons in Spits­ber­gen to see the auro­ra. The­re is no lack of darkness, but still some light or at least twi­light during day­ti­me for other acti­vi­ties. This is how sea­son (espe­cial­ly Octo­ber), so accom­mo­da­ti­on is che­a­per than at other times. You should rent a car (ren­tal cars are avail­ab­le in Lon­gye­ar­by­en) to get a bit away from the arti­fi­cial light of the big city 🙂 well, it is big enough to cau­se dis­tur­ban­ce during nort­hern light obser­va­ti­on and pho­to­gra­phy. No sur­pri­se the Kjell Hen­drik­sen nort­hern light obser­va­to­ry in Advent­da­len near Lon­gye­ar­by­en has moved up a moun­tain some years ago – 500 m clo­ser to the auro­ra! Well, that doesn’t real­ly mat­ter, but fur­ther away from light sources. The new obser­va­to­ry, at the end of the road abo­ve mine 7, is obvious­ly a good place to be during auro­ra acti­vi­ty, but turn your lights off when you are get­ting clo­ser, they want their darkness.

Polar night and polar light, Longyearbyen campsite

Nort­hern light abo­ve Lon­gye­ar­by­en cam­ping site. 50 mm, 3.2 sec., f 4.0, ISO 1600.

Camp­si­te Lon­gye­ar­by­en in the polar night: 360 degree pan­ora­ma

To pho­to­graph the auro­ra, you should have a prime lens with big aper­tu­re. 24 mm or 50 mm with f 1.4 or even 1.2 are per­fect. If you take the effort of tra­vel­ling to the Arc­tic to see the nort­hern light, then it is worth to bring good gear. You won’t get good auro­ra pho­tos with a small pocket came­ra, let alo­ne a smart­pho­ne. (You can rent good len­ses; che­a­per pri­ced simp­ler ver­si­ons of prime len­ses are also often pret­ty good). And bring a tri­pod, that is essen­ti­al. A good, low noi­se came­ra (full frame sen­sor) makes a big dif­fe­rence. Don’t use too long expo­sure times, as the auro­ra is moving. Too long expo­sures will result in blur­red images. With a good full frame sen­sor, the­re is no rea­son to be afraid of ISO values of 1600 or 3200 or even hig­her if nee­ded, to get the shut­ter speed down to 3.2 or 4 seconds and an aper­tu­re of 4 or so. You don’t want to have the aper­tu­re ful­ly open, 1.2 comes at a pri­ce in terms of qua­li­ty. Still, with good lens that has aper­tu­re 1.2, you will get bet­ter image qua­li­ty at f 2.0 or 3.2 than with f 2.0 with a lens that does not go any fur­ther. Espe­cial­ly if you have some­thing in the bot­tom of your frame, a hut, a tent, wha­te­ver. Which is usual­ly much more atmo­s­phe­ric than “just” a nort­hern light. A small, but well defi­ned source of arti­fi­cial light will also help you to focus. Turn the auto­fo­cus off, it won’t help you in the­se con­di­ti­ons. Focus manu­al­ly.

Polar night and polar light near Longyearbyen

Polar night and polar light abo­ve Pla­tå­berg near Lon­gye­ar­by­en. The image appears brigh­ter than rea­li­ty. Ear­ly Janu­a­ry evening, 6 sec., f 4.0, ISO 1600.

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last modification: 2019-02-26 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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