When To See The Northern Lights
Seeing the Northern Lights primarily depends on a combination of four main elements: darkness, clear skies, extreme northern (southern) latitude, and solar activity.
Typically most think of Northern Lights watching as a winter activity. This is only true to the extent that winter nights at northern latitudes are long, thus allowing more hours not for Auroras to occur, but to be visible. The best two displays I’ve seen so far both occurred, oddly enough, on the night of October 8th. I’ve seen them as early as the end of August and as late as mid April, times at which the sky is not fully dark.
Occurrence of the Northern Lights is generally somewhat predictable, as they usually happen several days after a solar storm occurs in our direction. And the more energy released from the sun generally coincides with both the intensity of the Aurora and the lowering of the latitude in which they are visible. The sun itself runs on an 11 year cycle of solar activity. In other words, every 11 years the sun will reach a heightened level of solar output, thus a greater occurrence of Northern Lights during these periods. Our recent solar maximum was supposed to have occurred in 2010/2011, but thus far, activity has been lower than predicted.
Historically, March and October typically have the greatest occurrence of solar activity.
In times of low solar activity, no matter how clear and dark the sky, the Northern Lights will be absent. Other times, a faint, almost cloud like glow will appear, barely perceptible to the eye. But pull out your camera and make an exposure of several minutes and you will see the light is green.
When large solar storm arrives, get ready for the show of your life as the lights dance across the sky from horizon to horizon in display of nature that I can only describe as truly breathtaking.
Lofoten Islands Northern Lights Watching
I’m of a mixed feeling about the Lofoten Islands as a destination for Northern Lights viewing. Forget all the tourist stuff about ‘Norway Northern Lights watching,’ as much of this info will be from organizations with some financial incentive, and you aren’t getting the whole story. In my opinion, you should give thought to two main things if deciding on Lofoten as a location to see the northern lights, and both of these revolve around the weather.
The Lofoten Islands are a stormy destination, to put it nicely. On average, I generally estimate there to be one clear day/night per week. So if you only have a single week in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, you are taking a chance with the weather cooperating. In this short time period you’re much better off heading east to Sweden and a place like Abisko, which enjoys many more clear winter nights than Lofoten.
On the other side, and in favor of Lofoten, is the temperature. Warmed by the gulf stream, the temperature on the Islands remains quite mild for such a northernly latitude [See When to Go]. The result for you is that standing out in the middle of the night can be a much more comfortable experience on Lofoten where it will usually be 10 – 20˚ C warmer than a more inland location like Abisko, or even Narvik or Tromsø.
If your main goal is mostly just to see the Northern Lights and maybe take a few photos mostly of the sky while on a somewhat limited time schedule, say under 1 week, go to Abisko and you’ll have much better odds. If you have two or more weeks to spend in pursuit of the lights, then you should get lucky on at least one night on Lofoten.
Current Aurora Activity Level
Useful Northern Lights Links
If you want to gamble for the chance at epic, stunning images of the Northern Lights, then go to Lofoten. Not much beats snow covered mountain peaks rising straight out of the sea with Auroras filling the night sky overhead. For me the Lofoten Islands are worth the risk of bad weather to take images of the Northern Lights that are dynamic and powerful, more than just a boring snow field or barren forest in the foreground. And don’t forget, a dose of luck and good timing will also be helpful.
Recent Experiences Aurora Watching
Sept – Oct 2011, 2 weeks. Generally stormy conditions with few clear nights. Some faint displays on several nights between passing clouds. Oct 8th, the sky finally remained clear and my 2nd best Aurora display filled the sky for over an hour.
Feb 2012, 2 weeks. I only experienced clear conditions on two nights, one of them producing only a small aurora display. Had I waited another week, then I would have witnessed one of the most powerful displays of the year.
Aug – Sept 2012, 2 weeks. Some small, mild glows in the sky, but nothing worth pulling out the camera for, even with a multitude of clear nights. I missed a good display just before I arrived.
Sept – Oct 2012, 2 weeks. Some clear nights, but little activity. Until the night of October 8th (again!), a perfectly clear sky and Auroras from horizon to horizon as I was sailing across the Vestfjord on the Hurtigruten. Even at 5:00 am as I was walking to the airport in Bodø, the sky was still active.
Feb 2013, 2 weeks. 3 good Aurora displays during the first week: Feb 14, 18, 19. Every night in which the sky was clear. During the following 10 days, the weather deteriorated and there were no clear skies or Auroras until the 28th when I was on the Hurtigruten ferry to Bodø and the weather cleared briefly.
Sept 2013, 3 weeks. Many clear and calm nights, but the Auroras remained fairly elusive. The best night was September 12th, while I was over in Sweden, but due to dropping my camera in a lake, there are no images. Despite clear weather from September 24 – 30, only one night of auroras.
Feb – Mar 2014, 6 weeks. I photographed the northern lights on 3 nights, all in the 1st half of February. There were some other nights of auroras, but either they weren’t worth photographing, or the sky was too cloudy. I did miss a good night on Lofoten while I was in Abisko, Sweden, where, unusually, it was clear skies over Lofoten and snowing in Abisko. Go figure.
Aug – Sept 2014, 5 weeks. Autumn 2014 was fantastic! Perhaps the most numerous and longest lasting northern lights I have seen. Almost like clockwork, 2-3 nights per week the sky was both clear and filled with northern lights. The first night I saw them was on August 28th, with the sky not yet fully dark. By mid September, I was routinely staying up till 1:00 – 2:00 am shooting.