Got several inquiries from travelers wishing to come here to see the aurora borealis, aka northern lights. Here is my attempt to provide a comprehensive answer to the seekers of this phenomenon.
The most common question is “When do I need to travel to the Kola Pensula to see aurora borealis for sure”. First, forget the “for sure” part. The aurora is a probabilistic thing. Thus there is no clear-cut answer to this question. Generally speaking, aurora borealis can be observed at high latitudes any time there are dark nights. On the Kola Peninsula it is approximately from September to April.
A common misconception is that aurora borealis requires real cold winter weather. This photo was made in the Hibiny mountains on the 28th of September, and I’ve myself seen the aurora in the vicinity of Kandalaksha starting the end of August.
The second question concerns the location. The more north you go the more likely you are to see it, and the brighter, with some luck, it will be. Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland are countries to visit to see the aurora. In Russia the places where the aurora is common include northern Karelia and the Murmansk region (the Kola Peninsula).
Several conditions need to coincide in addition to the right place and time. These are intense solar activity, clear sky, and absence of city lights. You can drive to a suitable observation place but solar activity and clear sky cannot be guaranteed. To watch these I recommend, for weather, rp5.ru, for solar activity either the site of the University of Alaska, Space Weather Prediction Center of the USA National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or popular Service Aurora.
There is an easier way to increase the chances of ending up in the right place at the right time to see the northern lights. Find a local group of aurora enthusiasts. Hunters for Aurora is the local Kandalaksha group. On their site you’ll usually find a notice when the probability of the aurora is high.
Given that here we are surrounded by seas (thus lots of clouds) and the number of nights with clear sky is considerably under 50%, the probability of seeing aurora on any given randomly chosen winter night is probably no more than 20%.
Finally, a note on taking photos of the northern lights. An ordinary camera just won’t do. Here is some advice from photography experts:
- Set your camera on Raw
- Use most light-sensitive lenses: 1.4, 2.8
- A tripod is essential
- The shutter should be open no more than 15 seconds
- Turn auto focus off and set the focussing manually on “infinity”, Live View mode.
Finally, some photos as a teaser. But please realize that there are many hours, if not days, of work behind each of the photos below. Chances of your seeing, let alone being able to photograph the aurora in all its glory are quite low.
Aurora Borealis photos shot from under water by Yegor Nikiforov (Novorossiysk). Teriberka, the Barents Sea, 2016 and 2017.
On my part I will be happy to put you in touch with local aurora borealis experts, or personally take you to places away from light pollution along the south shore of the Kola Peninsula, or to the middle of it (Apatity, Kirovsk, or Lovozero, the center of local Saami life), farther away from the sea, where the probability of clear nights is a bit higher than either in cloudy Murmansk or Kandalaksha.
But remember, the northern lights are an ellusive entity, and there is no guarantees whatsoever you’ll see them in all their glory.