Clear skies and the brightest northern lights

And just like that, it’s April.  For most cities clutched by the relentless grip of winter, April is always met with welcoming smiles and relieved sighs.  April is that dear friend you haven’t seen for a while; it takes one look and all the fond memories come flooding in—longer days, warmer temperatures, that first patio drink, open-toe shoes.

Not being too fond of the cold, I am beyond excited.  But as I pack away my parka and wish for even warmer temperatures, I can bet that somewhere in the Arctic is a group of people who are praying/pleading/begging for the exact opposite—they are northern lights chasers and for them, Spring can wait.  To see the aurora borealis, they’ll need winter at its absolute finest.

COLDER NIGHTS AND CLEAR SKIES

 April is the last month for the northern lights chase season.  At this time of year in the places directly underneath the aurora ring—a halo-shaped belt of auroras several hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle—there simply is not enough time for the night sky to get dark enough.  The sun sets well past 8PM and starts to peek out of the horizon just after 5AM.  With strong twilight hours, this gives chasers a window of just a few hours of darkness to hunt for the northern lights.  

To assure more chances of seeing the auroras, most northern lights chasers book their trips in the Winter months.  Our first chase in 2012 took place in February and our eight-hour outing was well within pitch-black conditions.  What we did not have then, however, is the second and (in my personal opinion) more important criterion for the perfect setup for a northern lights show: clear, cloudless skies.

It was a balmy 4ºC in the Arctic Circle when we visited the first time, and plump, ominous rain clouds hovered low over Tromso (Norway) blocking our view of clear skies.  Reports said it was a weather anomaly—on the exact same day, it was -14ºC in Berlin.  We were extremely lucky to have seen the lights that night through a small clearing in the night sky.  But we promised ourselves that we will come back and try again.

And come back and try again, we did.  This time around, there was no weather anomaly in the Norwegian Arctic—we were greeted by -20ºC, 10 feet of snow, and utter darkness at 2PM in the afternoon.  It was absolutely perfect.

The plan was to celebrate our first wedding anniversary with Saturday night dinner under the northern lights cooked by Norway’s legendary Guide Gunnar.  When we arrived on Friday afternoon, the first thing we did was check the weather conditions followed by a conversation that sounded like this:

Is it cold?  Bitter.  It’s -20ºC and I cannot feel my nose.
Are there rain clouds?  Zero.  The colder it gets, the less chances of swollen, party-pooper rain clouds.
Is there solar activity?  Affirmative.  The forecast is low, but it’s there.
Should we call for make a last-minute booking?  It’s already ringing.

At 6PM that night, we boarded our Northern Shots Tours coach and chased the northern lights under a clear night sky.

After two hours of careful driving in winding snow-covered roads, we reached Sommarøy Island, about 50km from downtown Tromso.  The coach stopped at literally the end of the road—beyond it was a shore of rocks and ice, and the Norwegian Sea.  We walked up a small hill and in front of us lay the beautiful (albeit dark) vista of the island of Håja, easily identified by its triangular shape, sitting on pitch-black water, against a backdrop of the clear night sky and a million stars.  We took our position, setup our cameras, and started the longest and most difficult part of the chase: Waiting.

Our view from the first hill that we climbed was slightly obstructed by another much bigger hill.  Nevertheless,  a slow northern lights show had already begun.

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8PM:  Our view was obstructed by a hill bigger than the one we’re standing on.  With “low” solar activity forecasted that night, we knew we had to move and make the most of the lights.

During the coach ride from Tromso to Sommarøy, we were informed by our guide that the solar activity for the evening is forecasted to be low.   It was fairly windy by the shore and being on top of the hill did not really give us any cover.  We had been waiting outside at -15ºC for over an hour when we decided that we should move to the next hill—the very same hill that was obstructing our view.

On this second trip to Tromso, I was on a mission to take better photographs.  I have upgraded my gear since the trip in 2012: from an Olympus Pen Micro 4/3 to a full-frame Nikon D600.  I was not only armed with a great camera and accessories, I had researched, studied, and rehearsed shooting in the dark for many nights.  And so I resolved that it would be sacrilegious to have a horrid hill in the foreground of my photos; our group must move.

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A much better view atop the hill that was previously obstructing our view.

And as our group of eight reached the top of the larger hill, like it was just waiting for us all along to get in prime position, the lights began a magnificent show.

In the solar activity scale of 0 to 9 — 0 being no activity, to 9 which is tantamount to a solar storm — the night’s forecast was 3.  But the auroras, like a moody thespian about to take centerstage,  decided to dial up the performance that evening to a spectacular 7.  We were captive audience as we stood still for a couple of hours watching the auroras dancing accompanied by no more than hushed whispers and the k’ch-chuk  of clicking cameras.  And to add to the crescendo, the Norwegian Sea reflected the brightest curtains like a mirror, turning the pitch-black sea to shimmering green water.

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Low solar activity? I think not. The aurora borealis suddenly lit up the skies so bright that the Norwegian Sea also started to glow green.

Before long, more coaches arrived to join us on our little hill.  In Tromso, some northern lights tour operators choose to work together to cover as much ground as possible in chasing the lights.  Especially during cloudy nights, when one tour group finds a clearing with a good view of the auroras, the location’s coordinates are passed along to others.  We’ve been watching the several hours when the other tour groups started to take position.

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Before long, other tour groups got wind of our prime location and joined us as captive audience.

At around 11PM our group decided to take a break from the cold and go back inside the coach for some cookies and hot chocolate.  We knew it was indeed our lucky night when a new set of northern lights started to appear just as we reached the foot of the hill.  Whilst we lost the view of the lights by the water, new streaks started to dance in front of us.  And to our right.  Then to our left.  And finally, a corona—a rare, circular curtain of lights—appeared right above us.  Like a finale to a concertato, the northern lights exploded, and the night sky was filled with curtains of dancing auroras.

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As we descended the hill and lost sight of the lights by the water, a new set appeared to our left.

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To our right, a bright streak of light danced from horizon to right above our heads.

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“Behold!” yelled out my husband, pretending to be the Lord of the Lights.

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Above our heads, a corona started to form.

After warming up inside the coach, we stepped out again to discover that new tour groups have taken our spot on top of the hill.  It was close to 1AM at that time, and we knew we’ll need to head back to Tromso soon.  We made our way up the hill again for a few more photographs.  Personally, I had a silly feeling of wanting to say farewell knowing that what we just experienced may not happen again in this lifetime.  The wind has picked up and the temperature has probably dropped to -20ºC.  I was exhausted but in front of me lay the perfect combination of a clear evening sky, a beautiful horizon, and strong northern lights—it’s everything anyone hoping to see the aurora borealis could wish for.  There was not a single cloud in sight, and a gust of wind made pull my hood closer.  With frozen fingers, I turned on my camera and started shooting again.

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Left: The northern lights chasers atop the hill. Right: Watching the finale of the evening.

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By the time we left, the lights were still dancing towards all directions. If only we could watch until sunrise.

My husband and I consider ourselves very lucky to have had the chance to see the lights a second time.  And although the first time will always be memorable, this second attempt, with perfect conditions, is truly special.  The chase season begins in September so there’s plenty of time to plan.  And if you need help, simply leave a comment here or a message in Facebook.

 

6 thoughts

  1. Ang ganda! I have doubts about a -20 temperature but after seeing your photos, I’ll have to suck it in and handle that. Nice one, Jec!

    • No need to worry, Lou! As long as you bundle up, you’ll be OK. You’ll be cold, yes, but you’ll be OK. ;) I’ll do a post on gear to bring/wear, as well, so stay tuned for that!

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