What If You Don’t See the Northern Lights?

24 Mar 2017
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“Have you ever seen the Northern Lights?” – a question that I have heard numerous times whenever I mentioned a trip to Scandinavia. My answer had until very recently been a constant “no”. Well – to be honest – I had never looked for the Northern Lights before. When I was in Iceland in the beginning of April some years ago (right about the end of Northern Lights season) – I made friends with a very nice British couple staying at my hotel. I remember that they were going on a different tour every single night in search of the Northern Lights, then coming to hotel at the breakfast time to murmur that it was another night with no luck. They just could not talk themselves into not giving it a chance every night when they made it all the way down to Iceland. I think they also thought that I was slightly weird for being so disinterested in the Northern Lights. Actually – the object of my disinterest was not or has never been the Northern Lights, I am just very disinterested in investing in the idea of seeing something very particular during any of my trips and then having to face the disappointment triggered by not being able to see it. That feeling of disappointment would then probably be a hard one to shake off and affect my entire trip. Each one of my travels is very precious to me in a very therapeutic way. I am therefore very affraid of endangering the feeling of easiness that traveling gives to me  –  a worry which leads me to minimise my expectations and try not to get obsessed with the idea of a particular experience or a sighting.

Northern Lights in Tromso
Northern lights outside of Tromso

Did I ever see the Northern Lights?

I this year recently went on an eleven days trip to Norway (and kept an online diary of it). First three days of my trip was spent with my good friends in Tromso – a tiny beautiful city in Northern Norway. The unofficial name for our trip was “in search of Northern Lights” but we repeatedly told each other that there was a chance that we would not see the lights and it should not get us down. Well – we never had a chance to test how our reaction would be since we saw a pretty good show right on the first night that we went out hunting for the lights. Don’t call me lucky yet though. As I noted above, it was an eleven days trip with eight days devoted to my favourite place on Earth  – Lofoten Islands, which is also known to offer one of the most (if not the most) beautiful settings for the Northern Lights. Sighting of the Northern Lights is on its own a quite phenomenal experience for sure but the surroundings that you see the lights in also has a great impact on the visual intensity of the whole experience. There is obviously a difference between seeing the Northern Lights in a quite ordinary setting (like the one above) and in a setting like the one in the below photo.

Lofoten Islands in Winter
Blue Hours of Lofoten and a cabin open for accommodation

Don’t call me lucky yet – Northern Lights are very unpredictable

Well, even though  I was in Lofoten for a whole week, I did not come across the Lady Aurora in any of the nights.  On top of it, the weather was far from being ideal for proper winter landscape photography (even though the storm days were still special) despite the fact that February is commonly known as the best month for winter photography in Lofoten Islands. In February, you have  a good chance of seeing Lofoten fully covered by snow, days are getting longer with interesting lighting conditions combined with the added bonus of February being among the top Northern Lights viewing months.  I still got to see some “partially” snow covered peaks, we had some days where there was only grey skies with heavy rain, there were only handful of times when the sun made an appearance for good photography lighting and the Lofoten was fully covered by snow (magnificent views) only on the very same day of my departure! In summary, I think it is fair to say that the weather had not treated me too nicely in my week in Lofoten. However, Lofoten was still very beautiful  (truly not much can take away the beauty of Lofoten Islands). Was I however disappointed? Again, truly no. I did not go to Lofoten for Northern Lights, I just wanted to spend an uninterrupted week in the islands to get a better sense of it as my previous trips to the islands were quite short (2-3 days). I made the cabin my home, prepared my own meals, took daily walks at very early hours of the morning, traveled to the other parts of the islands, photographed stormy scenes, took a very cold boat ride and tried my best to make the best use of the limited but spectacular appearances of the sun.

Lofoten Islands During Storm
Storm as seen from Eliassen – where I stayed

Which one is more special?

Seeing the Northern Lights is nice and special in its own way as it is still a fairly rare happening. Oh did I also tell you that your naked eyes do not get to see it the way the lights appear through your camera? The first photo above is how my camera saw the lights, not the way the lights appeared to my own eyes. You sure still get a sense of it with your naked eyes but nothing as clear as you see through the camera. The storm and the blue hour scenes reflected in the above photos however are almost the same as the way my camera saw those scenes. The Northern Lights experience is still special but trust me Scandinavia (especially in winter) is way more special than the Northern Lights. If you think that having seen the Northern Lights in your lifetime gives you a badge of honour – trust me, being in remote corners of Scandinavia in winter would give you even a better one.

Lofoten Islands Sunrise
It may not be the Northern Lights but still a very beautiful colour show

 

  • Fairbanks Lightfoot

    I know I am commenting very late on this blog, as I have just come across it, but here goes.

    Firstly, this is a great piece. I have some thoughts on it if I may share them.

    The northern lights have been known for years to be elusive. That’s part of their whole appeal/mystique, I guess. That it can take a great deal of patience, time and money to see them, and yet you risk disappointment. I left a job to travel to Alaska in 2003 and risked great disappointment in doing so. I was lucky, but if you go at the right time of the solar cycle, the right time of year (the weeks around the autumn or spring equinoxes) and stay long enough, you are more than likely to see a beautiful display. It is of course not remotely guaranteed though. The coast of Norway is also tricky, as due to its relatively temperate and gulf-stream induced nature, there is quite a bit of cloud cover, more so than in northern Sweden on the other side of the mountains.

    Turn up in Northern Scandinavia, for a week or so, hoping to see a dazzling light show, you may very well be let down. The sun is 93 million miles away. Coronal holes and solar flares cannot be summoned up to order, and the earth and sun need to be in the right position in relation to one other, to allow the charged particles to interact with earth’s magnetic field, for there to be a beautiful display. The interplanetary magnetic field also needs to be pointing predominately south in most cases for there to be a powerful geomagnetic storm. The necessary solar activity needs to be earth facing also. A solar flare or high speed solar wind stream from a coronal hole is no use if it is on the far side of the sun. Even if on the earth facing side, it may miss the earth, or not give a strong enough blow to trigger a powerful display.

    You may of course be very lucky. You do have to be committed though. That is why not as many people as you would think travel to see the northern lights. They do not wish to risk the disappointment and ruin or infect the rest of their trip. It is the very definition of a quixotic adventure.

    Due to a longstanding northern lights obsession, I did the following trips, after working at low paid jobs, saving up for years and sacrificing things, in order to go and see them. I am not remotely wealthy.

    I spent three and a half weeks in Alaska, in September 2003 (mainly in Fairbanks), and the lights did not appear for the first eight nights, and this was around equinox. We then had a week and a half of some spectacular displays. Sometimes you have to wait for hours over many nights with no guarantee.
    I spent two weeks in Norway in 2007 and saw nothing. I did go to see the coast in autumn as well, it was beautiful beyond words and worth the trip alone. You are so right about the Norwegian coast, it is stunning.

    I spent six weeks in Churchill, Canada, in February and March of 2012, and did not see a single decent show for the first three and a half weeks. I was waiting outside at night in minus 30 degree+ temperatures for much of that time, which was not the most fun I have ever had. Though patience was eventually rewarded, it took a lot of effort.
    I spent a week in Kiruna, Sweden, in March 2015, and I got very lucky on the evening of March 17th when they went nuts due to the largest geomagnetic storm of the solar cycle. No-one in our group or our guide took any photos as our gear had been packed away. We just watched quietly stunned, in silence, apart from our guide, who only said, “Sometimes you just have to watch”. It was a butterfly of a display that you couldn’t capture, you were just supposed to watch it flutter its colourful wings before it flew away. Though I understand the urge to try and record such things.

    The lights have been written about since long before the invention of the camera and that should tell you something about their sometimes awe-inspiring power and beauty. They are certainly not a camera only/camera generated event.

    I do wish though, that people would not post time-lapses of the northern lights, as if they are strong, then they are pointless (and you should seek out the real time recordings that are actually out there), and if they are not, then they are misleading.

    And yes, the Aurora tourism industry is based on an oversold promise/dream of seeing magic. And yes, some photographs, set on a long exposure, can be misleading. The opposite is also true, however. The lights, when they move with power or grace, cannot be captured by still photography, whether they be billowing like a giant and ghostly drapery in the breeze, rippling/concertinaing like the underside of a giant green jellyfish, with pink and purple edges, or spreading out across the sky like oil in water. I did not take any photographs of the best displays I saw. You may as well try and capture lightening in a bottle. It is the movement that takes you by completely by surprise and is almost impossible to describe/relay. Analogous descriptions can help, but ultimately they do not convey the experience of seeing a full blown geomagnetic storm. If you are looking through a view finder, or messing about with a camera, then you are not immersed in what the lights are doing. The northern lights cannot be captured in this way. It also misses the core message of them, I believe, which is that is that great beauty exists in this world, but it is passing.

    I would also add the some strong Aurora displays need an exposure of barely a couple of seconds.

    The Northern Lights gave me some experiences that I struggle to relay. I also firmly believe that we are surrounded by beauty right here, in front of us, if we could only see it. I would also give up all of my experiences of seeing them in order to be healthy again and to see the people that are no longer here.

    Though beautiful, there are obviously far more important things in this world than the northern lights (even though their very manifestation is as a result of the magnetic field that protects us all from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation). What’s that old saying, “pity the man whose dreams don’t come true, pity the man whose dreams do.”

    Carl Jung also said,

    “I should hate the thought that I had touched on the sphere where the paint is made that colours the world, where the light is created that makes shine the splendour of the dawn, the lines and shapes of all form, the sound that fills the orbit, the thought that illuminates the darkness of the void. I am profoundly mistrustful of the “pure gifts of the Gods.” You pay very dearly for them. Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (Men of Troy, beware the horse!).
    all the best
    Richard

    • Richard – thank you for this. This is a great piece and I especially love Jung quotation. I would love to follow your writing if you have your own blog.

      • Fairbanks Lightfoot

        I don’t have a blog at present, but it is something I am thinking about doing (thoughts, reflections and whatnot). I will let you know if I get things together!

  • Fairbanks Lightfoot

    Your photographs of Norway are stunning.

  • Fairbanks Lightfoot

    I saw Norway in 2007, in September and October. The weather was all over the place and was very dramatic. Sunshine, cloud and rain, mountains, sea and autumn leaves.

    The most beautiful place I have ever seen/been. You are so right that the northern lights can take attention away from Norway’s beautiful landscapes. They shouldn’t. The Lofoten Islands are incredible. Dramatic doesn’t even begin to cover it. I would so love to see them in winter.

    Thank you for your writing and photographs, they have reminded me of happier times. All the best on your travels.