I have a got a new interesting post for you! Many people would like to know if the Auroras will show up in the skies when they visit Lapland. Certainly, it is a noble wish! However, sometimes it is difficult to give definitive answers, because predicting Aurora Borealis is a tricky business. Aurora Forecast is always an estimate, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Here are all the useful tips and internet sources that will help you find answers to your questions!
Aurora Borealis is still a very mysterious and fascinating subject. Despite being studied and explained, there are so many things that we don’t know about it and its main creator – the sun.
Aurora Borealis is caused by the solar wind, bumping into the Earth’s magnetic field. It surrounds our planet and protects it from the cosmic radiation. However, at its weakest points, North from Arctic Circle, and South to the Antarctic Circle, the magnetic field lets some of this radiation pass through.
When the solar wind reaches the upper layers of our planet’s atmosphere, it excites the protons and electrons of Oxygen and Nitrogen, charging them with energy. They release this energy in the form of photons, light, which we call the Aurora Borealis!
Not many people know, that Aurora Borealis exist all year round, not only in winter. Naturally, we cannot see it in Summer, because here, in Lapland, we have the Midnight sun – a period of several months when it doesn’t get dark at night. Certainly, daylight is a much more powerful source of light, which prevents us from seeing the Auroras.
The season of Aurora Borealis lasts from the end of August, when the nights become dark again, until the end of April, when the night literally “ends” in Lapland.
Autumn actually, September and October, is usually a good time to see Northern Lights, because the skies often remain clear at night.
Also, for some unknown reason Auroras love equinoxes and appear more often in October and March. Certainly, you can see them also throughout the Winter and Spring, providing that the skies are clear.
Thus, weather forecast is probably going to be your most important tool to estimate the possibility to see Auroras. The sky needs to be at least somewhat clear!
The activity of our Sun respects the so-called “solar cycles”. Each cycle last about 11 years, however that number is known to vary between 9 and 12 years. At the height of the cycle the sun is very active, producing many sunspots. However, at its lowest point which lasts a couple of years, there are fewer sunspots, meaning – there are fewer Auroras.
It is not the absolute truth though and Auroras can appear also at times of lower solar activity, especially around the “Aurora Belt” – a region in Northern Scandinavia which includes Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Lapland, as well as Russia’s Kola peninsula.
Northern Finland is known as a great place to spot Auroras because of its convenient location under the Aurora Belt and high quality and affordable services, such as accommodation and guided tours. The current 24th Solar Cycle is coming to an end, meaning that seeing Auroras is still likely in couple of years to come, however it will be relatively quiet around 2019–2020. If you wish to see Auroras during those years, you better find yourself at the Aurora Belt!
The main reason, causing Aurora Borealis, is the sunspots. These are the places with lower temperature on the “surface” of the sun, which often produce solar flares and so called “Coronal Mass Ejections” (CMEs). This basically means magnetic field and plasma, travelling away from the sun. It is important that the erupting sunspots are at least loosely positioned against Earth, because if they are situated, for example, at the sun’s edge, the explosion will probably miss Earth.
It takes a CME about 2–4 days to reach Earth. Normally this is the average time period that Aurora forecasts are made. We can assume that if there was a CME, there might be some Auroras after 2–4 days, but this is just a guess.
The confirmation of CMEs arrival can be acquired only and 1 hour before its contact with Earth. This is because there is no way for us to track its movement, until it reaches a point where the Earth’s and Sun’s gravitational effect become equal (known as Lagrange points). This is a great place for us, humans, to place our tiny satellites, which observe the sun and measure its activity. This point, however, is about 90 times closer to the Earth than the Sun, meaning that there is not too much time to react. There are several NASA satellites there which measure the Sun’s activity. The newest is the DSCOVR satellite, launched in 2015.
The data from these satellites is available for free at the of Space Weather Prediction Center of National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (USA). There are also many sites, which use this data and give their free forecasts about the Aurora Borealis. One of the most know sites is SpaceWeatherLive.com. There you can see some nice visualisations of this data and sun’s activity in general.
Another great site, which I often visit to see forecasts about Auroras is SpaceWeather.com. They usually give a short estimate about Aurora Borealis and Sun Flares, as well as discuss other interesting weather phenomena.
The Aurora sites and communities draw their own conclusions about the data, received from satellites. Usually they make pretty accurate Aurora forecasts, however, occasionally they are also wrong. You have to treat these forecasts with a little bit of caution.
Northern Lights can skip the party in spite of promising forecasts and sometimes they can also appear out of the blue even when the estimate is average or low.
The thing is – there are still so many things we don’t know about the world which surrounds us…
A great tool to know when to go out and enjoy Northern Lights is the web cameras of the night sky. One of the sites, which shows webcams above Finland, is Auroras Now! – the site of Finnish Meteorological Institute.
There is a difference which webcam to look at. Kilpisjärvi, for example, is situated at the extreme North of Finland and if you are a couple of hundred kilometers away, you still might not see Auroras. Webcam above a city called Sodankylä is normally a good reference for all Lapland. It is highlighted with blue frame on the screenshot below.
In addition to webcams, the site has a 1 hour estimate of Auroras (remember that it’s all we’ve got after the sun burst passes our satellites), as well as a report about Aurora activity for the past two days.
There are also some mobile applications which provide some Aurora predictions. Remember, they are all using the same data from NASA satellites, so they cannot make wonders. Most of the apps are free, but in some apps you can choose to pay for notifications, if the Aurora Borealis will reach a certain level of activity.
In Rovaniemi area there is also an interesting service which notifies you about the coming of Auroras. This service is called AuroraAlert. Contrary to the resources, mentioned above, this service uses its own sensors, situated in Rovaniemi area. When the Auroras come, they react immediately and the service sends you an SMS and email. It also takes into account the weather and will not bother you, if the sky is too cloudy to see Auroras. I have tested this service for two weeks and can confirm that it works like a clock. You have to pay to use the service though and currently you can buy a ticket with activation code at most of Rovaniemi hotels, as well as Lapland Safaris office in Rovaniemi. In addition to the realtime alerts the service provides a forecast about the nights’ Aurora activity via email. Aurora Alert has already finished its Spring 2016 season and will be back Winter 2016–2017.
Well, that’s about it for this time. If there are some questions left unanswered, you can leave it in the comments below! Good luck hunting Auroras!