How to Shoot The Aurora: What is Aurora

This post is part of a series called See The Aurora
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How to shoot the aurora, what is aurora

Part 1: What is Aurora?

This is part one of a four part series where I explain what is aurora, what gear you need to capture the aurora, how to shoot it, and how to edit your aurora photos.

Aurora season in the northern hemisphere is just around the corner! Traveling to see the northern (or southern) lights is a big draw to polar destinations like Alaska, Antarctica, Finland, Greenland and more! Want to take an aurora travel? This guide will give you all the information you need!

Are you planning a trip to the high latitudes (or super low lats)? This guide will give you all the tips, tricks and a step-by-step list of how to shoot the aurora on you’re very own.

Here's some aurora, how to shoot the aurora, what is aurora

What is aurora?

Aurora is a natural phenomenon that occurs in latitudes nearer to the poles. In the northern hemisphere it’s called the aurora borealis or northern lights. In the southern hemisphere they are called the aurora australis or southern lights.

Where is the best place to see them?

Many. The aurora circles the magnetic poles of the planet in an elliptical pattern. The best places locations in the northern hemisphere to see them are Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, Norway Canada, Finland, Russia. The best in the southern hemisphere to see or shoot the aurora australis is Antarctica, New Zealand, Tasmania, South Georgia, The Falklands, Argentina and Chile.

It is best to head away from any sort of light pollution. That means head far away from cities or roads/highways for optimal viewing.

When is the best time to see them?

A huge mistake I see a lot of tourists coming (or planning to come) to Alaska make is coming the wrong time of year. Ehem. YOU NEED A DARK NIGHT SKY TO SEE THE AURORA! Sorry, I’m not yelling at you, I’m just trying to make my point loud and clear. In areas approaching the Arctic/Antarctic Circles we do not have much or any dark at all in the summer months. On the flip side, in winter months the sun barely rises or may not at all if you are located above the circle. September through March are the best time to view in northern latitudes where September through March are best for their southern counterparts.

What conditions do I need to see the aurora?

You need a solar flare and a clear night sky. If cloud cover is forecasted you could have a Kp 9 storm and still never see them because, well, clouds. Aside from the clear skies you need a solar flare to blast the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles. When these charged particles hit the upper atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen they give off different colors and are then funneled back towards the poles, because, magnetism. The magnetic field is the reason why they’re are more visible near the poles. What is aurora? Just lots of gas and space dust. Isn’t science fucking awesome?

Can you forecast the aurora?

In theory? Yes. Scientist can and do try to forecast it. But it’s merely a highly educated guess. Sometimes they’re accurate other times they’re dead wrong. If that evening in late December 2015 had been forecasted to be as high as it turned out to be, we all know my ass would not have been blissfully asleep in bed. Use the forecast as a tool, but know you can’t 100% rely on it’s accuracy. And you thought predicting the weather was hard.

What is the 11 year cycle?

how to shoot the aurora, 11 year aurora cycle, sunspots per year, sunspots, sun activity, 1 1 year aurora cycle chart, aurora chart
# of sunspots present each year from 1994 to 2015.

Okay, you’ve probably seen that click-bait propaganda flitting about the internet saying get out and See the Aurora in ‘fill in the blank year’ Before it Disappears Forever! Please, remember that these headlines are complete and utter bullshit. No, they are not going to disappear forever. Well, unless maybe the sun suddenly explodes, in which case it won’t even matter because we’ll all be dead anyways. Anyways, back to the point here- the 11 year cycle. Ever since Galileo started tracking the sun about 400 years ago, we as humans haven’t stopped. In 1843 Samuel Schwabe discovered the solar cycle. He had been making observations in the summer of sunspots. The sun has a rhythm is what to take from my mini-minimal-history lesson. The peak of the 11 year cycle is when the sun is at its solar maximum, meaning that the sunspots are most numerous which indicated the sun is at its most active- This happens about every 11 years. When the sun is most active is when the chances of you seeing the aurora greatly increases. Of course there are variances in this cycle and it is totally possible to see aurora at years in and around the solar minimum. Just know that the last ‘maximum’ year was in 2013, and yet we’ve had great storms in 2014, 15, 15 and 17!

What do I use to predict the aurora?

I may be partial because I’m from Alaska, but I use the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute’s forecast. Aside from quite literally freezing their nads off half the year, this group of individuals with great brains study the Earth’s Geophysical processes, which includes the aurora. Don’t worry they predict the aurora for the entire planet- that means you too Antarctica and New Zealand. Other websites to check out are Aurora Service, and NOAA.

This is what the forecast looks like on UAF’s Geophysical Institute’s website.

I hope this first post ‘what is aurora’ in this series helps explain the what, when, and where of the aurora and eventually helps you learn to shoot the aurora!

Check out my other posts teaching you how to shoot the aurora!

Aurora Photography Gear, How to Shoot the Aurora, and How to Edit Your Aurora Photos.