Last Updated on by vincent
To see the Northern Lights, it’s best to take every chance you can get. First of all, you should know that if you are at the right latitude, you have a good chance of seeing them as long as the sky is clear. Even if the activity is low, they will probably be there. Both for activity and weather, you’ll need to rely on data, apps and good sites.
So first of all you are dependent on the weather. Logically, you will need to study the cloud coverage to know where to go, where the clear sky is. As the weather is a bit unpredictable in the Nordic countries, you will have to look regularly and precisely.
Then, the Northern Lights depend on the solar activity. If this activity is strong, then the auroras have good chances to be superb. But in the same way, you will have to look at the data, the applications, to know when to go out if you don’t want to spend all your nights out.
Let’s take a look !
Some background information
First of all, before we get into the nitty gritty, I wanted to touch on a few things that are super important:
- the northern lights are a natural phenomenon, you are never 100% sure to see them. Even with a clear sky, sometimes you can’t see anything (even if I estimate 9 chances out of 10 to see them)
- applications and sites are only data, it is never 100% sure
- the KP is NOT the best indicator, it will be the BZ
- you have to put all the chances on your side in terms of mobility and patience
- you will not be able to see them everywhere, in Europe you will have to be at least at the polar circle. Further south it will be on the horizon (except for solar storms)
- Finally: assume that even with bad data, you have chances to see them
Weather sites and apps in Norway: Ventusky and Yr
You may have the biggest activity ever, but if you don’t have a clear sky above you, then you won’t be able to see the Northern Lights. Obviously.
So, you first need to study the weather, see the cloud cover. I’m going to propose you two applications / sites for the weather, which are very good (of course, otherwise I wouldn’t tell you about them!) and which I use daily.
And it won’t be just the weather at 10pm, you’ll have to see how the weather evolves, because the clouds move. Hence the anticipation.
Sometimes you’ll have to drive 2 hours to find clear sky. And it’s worth it!
Ah, another thing! the weather is a thing here in the north. In Iceland, in Norway, it’s often a big mess, it really changes all the time. So you shouldn’t look at it 3 days before, because it will change again.
But I look every day, and the same day at noon to have an idea and around 5pm to know where to go. If it’s a 30min drive to the fjord or 3h to Finland for example.
Finally, as a warning, it happens that the weather app are wrong. In general it is when a big fog takes the region of Tromso for example. They are rather reliable, but do not hesitate to consult several and especially to move if the clouds remain
Yr.no to get the big picture
What I like with Yr is to know at a glance if the weather is going to be bad or not, with the icons. Snow, temperature, clouds. In the details we also have a lot of data like the % of the different clouds. But you can access it with a lot of clicks, not easy.
However, the map is not great to have a totally accurate view of the places with/without clouds, when it can change for a few kilometers, or to know where there are the least clouds. It’s good to know if there are clouds or not, but we’ll need a more accurate tool afterwards
Ventusky to have the cloud coverage very accurate
This tool that is super accurate in cloud cover (and lots of other data), is the site Ventusky. Which is also an application (Android / iPhone), this one being paying to have access to all the data like the clouds (but if like me you spend a lot of time there, it is quickly paid back!)
If you don’t want to buy the app, then the mobile version of the site is perfectly fine.
In Ventusky, you have to select the clouds and there, it’s heaven. You have the % cloud cover everywhere, to the kilometer, hour by hour. It’s super accurate!
And that’s why I use it all the time. I can easily scroll through the hours so I can see the movement of the clouds, so I know where to go.
Alternative: I find it a little less intuitive to read, but Windy is also a reliable site
Northern Lights Sites and Apps
I told you, if you’re in the far north, we’ll assume you can see them every night. Even if the activity is low, even if the KP is at 0, there are chances to see some. Well, not necessarily the big explosion, but seeing something all the same.
But to track activity and data, I recommend a site and an app. Let’s see it
Data you must know
- the KP: it is the level of geomagnetic disturbance. It’s related to the solar activity, so yes the higher it is the higher the chances to see big auroras, but it’s not really reliable. I had fantastic evenings at KP 0 or 1, and absolutely nothing at KP 4.
- the BZ: this is reliable. The more the BZ is negative, the stronger the auroras will be, “it’s going to explode” as I say. And if the BZ goes down to -10 (or less) and goes back up to positive, it will be great! A BZ around 0 will still bring auroras at the level of Tromso (and the northern oval), the more the BZ will be positive, the more it will be calm
- the density: the quantity of particles in the solar wind (responsible for the aurora). The higher it is, the bigger the aurora will be (dense, as its name indicates). Below 4, it is really not great, above 8 it is good
- the speed of the solar winds : in the same way, the faster the solar winds are, the stronger and more active the aurora will be
So basically, if the BZ is well positive, it will be really complicated (but it varies, it can drop all of a sudden!). Ditto, if the density is close to 0, good luck seeing anything. I remember some nice data, a negative BZ and all, density at 1 or 2. There was something moving well but hardly visible.
Basically, if you have the BZ moving like in the picture below, it smells great!
My Aurora Forecast application and its notifications
There are plenty of aurora apps out there. They all offer more or less the same thing: the data I just mentioned, the representation of the aurora oval (the big green line that crosses the map to indicate the power of the auroras), forecasts in the more or less short term.
First, you must know that it is impossible to predict at more than 3 days what will happen because it is the duration of the Sun-Earth journey for solar storms, so when something happens, it takes 3 days to arrive. The forecasts beyond that, it’s just not possible.
- notifications. When there is a possible high activity, you get a notification. And this can mean that between 30min and 1h, something good should happen. It’s pretty reliable, but!
- of course there can be some dawns without getting the notification, it happens often. The notification beeps when stronger data comes out
- it can also happen that nothing happens. Just last night for example
- Webcams are useful to know what is happening elsewhere, if there is activity before arriving (you are in Iceland and you want to know if there is activity in Finland for example)
The Space Weather Live site for the activity
I really like the SPACE WEATHER LIVE website which is a reference. First because it is very easy to read, more than the app. You can see at a glance all the data, the KP, BZ… with graphs that can be read quickly.
Moreover an index that I like, the storm disturbance time for geomagnetic storms. The lower it is, the better it is, and you can see the solar storms.
It’s a reliable site, up to date data, really top.
Alternative: the site NOAA, Real Time Solar Wind to have the solar wind data. Super accurate, there is what you need but not necessarily the easiest to read
Tips for looking for the Northern Lights
- be mobile: because you will have to move around to find the clear sky
- move away from cities, lights, roads
- have the clearest view possible especially with the north, west and ideally the east. If it’s a solar storm then you’ll need the south
- be patient, because we don’t know when they may arrive
- be ready at nightfall, from 19:00/19:30
- have warm clothes! Because it will be cold. And by waiting/looking at the auroras, we are motionless so it is even worse
- prepare the batteries and the memory cards!
Tours to see the Northern Lights
One may want to go through a northern lights tour to maximize the chances of seeing them. I did it during my first 2 stays up there and I don’t regret it. Just you have to choose well, to inform yourself well and to see the opinions.
And it is, you pretty much know everything! So before knowing the aurora activity, you need to know where the clear sky is, how the cloud cover will change. This is the most important thing because without clear sky, no auroras!
Finally, put on the notifications, but especially stay outside when you can. Be ready, anticipate, they can come at any time, strong or not. With a clear view and a clear sky, you have great possibilities to see them!
Pay attention to the data, if the BZ is too negative, or if it dives suddenly so you don’t miss the potential explosions. But you’ll see, all this can be learned very quickly 🙂