Upon coming to Norway at the end of February, we knew that we had to head north to try and see the elusive but beautiful Northern lights. After spending a few days exploring Oslo, we took a train to the historic Viking capital city of Trondheim. It is located on the 63° N degree, but to have the highest chance of seeing the lights, you have to venture even further north into the arctic circle (66° N). The city of Bodø is located on the 67º N and was just a short 10 hour train ride away! I say short because the train’s in Norway are so comfortable, have wifi and some of the best scenery in the world so time seems to pass in a blur.
Things to know about the Aurora Borealis
Before arriving, we were doing some deep research into the Northern lights. Here are some important things to note:
- They are caused by solar activity and electrical particles that collide with gasses inside the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth’s magnetic field pulls the particles towards the poles, hence why they can only be seen near the poles.
- There must be near total darkness to see them properly. Glare and ambient light will hurt your chances of seeing the lights. When you are this far North, there are periods of total darkness over the winter months, and periods of constant Sun during the summer months (known as the Midnight Sun)
- Even if you have total darkness and superb solar activity, cloud cover is the biggest reason why the lights may not be seen.
- Sometimes, the lights appear grey if there isn’t a huge amount of solar activity, or if the sky is cloudy.
As soon as we arrived, we took our rental car to the arctic cabins that we were staying in just outside of Bodø. The cabins were in a perfect location, outside of the major city lights and offered a beautiful back-drop for pictures and perfectly cozy for when we needed to warm up quickly (link to the cabins)! We dropped our bags off, and immediately went outside to look at the sky. I had forgotten to pack my DSLR tripod (shows how much of an amateur I am..) but I was still able to capture this image. In hindsight, it might be one of the best images I have ever taken considering that it was a 10 second hand-held exposure!
We kept coming out to see the lights throughout the night. The clouds come and go very quickly. We were always able to see the green glow coming over the clouds and mountains, but we didn’t see the streaks of light that are common in photographs.
The next day, we met some German college students who were here on holiday. They too were looking for the lights. They had been here a few days already and had seen nothing. We showed them our crude photo and told them to keep coming out every hour between 9PM-3AM in order to maximize their chances of seeing the lights. The next night, they had more luck and were able to capture this wonderful image below.
We asked them if they had actually seen the moving streaks or if they were consistently green like the image. They told us that they actually didn’t see much at all. It was extremely faint and the first night that we had seen them, the lights were even brighter than on this perfectly clear night. We learned then that the camera lens can see the colors much better than the human eye! In order to truly see the lights streaking across the sky, you really have to have great solar activity and a clear, cloudless, dark night. The best chance to see the lights is to stay in the Arctic circle for a week or so, during the peak months (February, March, September and October for Bodø)
Northern Lights from a plane!
On our flight back from Bodø to Oslo, there was very high solar activity and the lights were visibly streaking even through all the ambient light of the plane. They appeared grey and green to the naked eye. I had a major tourist moment and took way too many pictures with the DSLR 🙂 I was hoping that one of them turned out ok. Here is another unprofessional hand-held image from the plane (f/1.8, 8sec, 50mm, @ 35000 ft, moving at 500mph and glare from all sides)
Those blurry dots are stars and it truly was quite a sight, the colors were amazing. The craziest part was that since most of the people on the plane were Norwegians, the lights are a regular occurrence for them, so nobody else was nearly as enthused as we were.
Most people venture to Northern Norway to see the lights. But, that really shouldn’t be the only reason. There is so much to see and do here such as skiing/snowboarding, dog-sledding, horse riding along the fjords, whale watching, kayaking, ice-fishing, etc. The natural beauty in Norway is unlike anything either of us have ever seen before. Stay tuned for the next post on dog-sledding and horse riding!