Chasing the Aurora Borealis
Feb 06, 2018 04:44PM
By Derek Burdeny
The northern lights were a common sight during my childhood in Winnipeg, Canada. Sort of like the red Cornhusker flags so common across Nebraska, you stop noticing the display after a while.
I’ve always said that Nebraska is the farthest south I could ever live without melting. It took moving here to reawaken my wonder and appreciation for the aurora borealis, the ribbons of green and red that danced across the northern night sky.
Working as a musculoskeletal radiologist in Omaha for 21 years, I’ve led a life dedicated to photos. In my occupation, I work with the black and white images of MRIs. In my free time, I chase storms and the northern lights with a camera in hand.
My obsession with photographic adventure-seeking began about 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve traveled the Arctic—Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Finland, and Norway—to shoot auroras. There are many countries where the astronomical phenomenon is visible. But it is Norway that keeps pulling me back year after year.
Auroras are caused by plasma energy streaming into the atmosphere and striking nitrogen and oxygen particles while interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. This plasma energy gets to Earth as solar winds that blow off of the sun after a coronal mass ejection (which often follows a sunspot eruption or solar flare). The stronger the solar storm, the farther south the aurora is visible on Earth.
Charged particles blowing off the sun will take two days to reach Earth. As they get closer, they are attracted by our magnetic field and pulled into holes in the atmosphere. Color variation occurs when solar winds collide with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, mainly oxygen and nitrogen. The most common color we see is green—caused by atomic oxygen—while reaction with nitrogen produces reds and blues in the northern lights.
From time to time—coinciding with especially large solar storms—the northern lights reach all the way down to Nebraska. But on those rare occasions, the display is fairly low on the horizon. Cornhusker territory is about as far south as the northern lights will appear, and I’ve never personally witnessed auroras in Nebraska.
When I drive back to Winnipeg, however, they are like a homing beacon that greet me over the interstate through the Dakotas. It’s like I’m following the twisting celestial lights back home.
Winnipeg is near the center of the aurora belt, and I’ve become a bit of a tourist when I return home. While visiting friends from high school on a recent winter trip, they picked me up at the airport for dinner. But I couldn’t get in the car. I was frozen, transfixed by the night sky.
“Oh, look! There’s the aurora,” I gawked as we stood in the subzero temperatures. My friend’s response? “Oh, nice. Let’s get in the car.” But the display was just getting started. “Corona!” I exclaimed. (A corona occurs when the colors just burst over top of you, like beams of light showering to the ground.) My friend didn’t share my enthusiasm: “Oh, yeah. Nice. Let’s get in the car.” To him, it was like just another red flag with an “N” in Nebraska.
The flat and tree-covered expanses of central Canada are rich in northern lights. But there isn’t much else of interest when composing a photograph. When I’m in photography mode, I want more than just the spectacular light display available in any other Arctic locale. That’s what draws me to Norway—a high likelihood of seeing auroras combined with breathtaking scenery, snow, mountains, icy seas, and fjords.
Unlike my storm chasing hobby, shooting the northern lights is much more sedentary. Dress warm. Set up the camera. Hope that bad weather doesn’t move in. Wait. Behold the lights. Snap. And if the weather doesn’t cooperate, stay in the hotel restaurant enjoying the delicious fish served in Norwegian cuisine.
Although there is a huge northern light tourism industry in Arctic countries, I avoid these crowds for a more personal experience. On my first trip to Norway (with a friend and his son), my companions were sure that we needed to go with a tour group for at least one day. “Not so,” I told them. I just needed a map. They didn’t believe me until I proved it.
We flew into the city of Tromsø, Norway (above the Arctic Circle). I found the small village of Sommarøy on a map. We loaded our equipment into a rental car, and we drove out. On the map, the settlements are only 35 miles apart, but because of the mountain roads, the trip requires about an hour driving from Tromsø.
Both Tromsø and Sommarøy are dead-center in the aurora belt, the fluctuating strip of geographical space where auroras are visible. The closer you are to the center of this belt, the stronger the auroras are. No matter how weak the aurora is, as long as you have clear skies, you will be able to see and photograph the lights. For truly amazing photos, all we needed was a strong solar storm and clear skies. Both of these conditions were predicted for our first day in Norway. Sure enough, just outside the village, we witnessed an amazing aurora.
Ever since that first Norwegian trip, I go back to Sommarøy every year. In fact, I have two trips to Tromsø planned in 2018. On one of these trips, I hope to do some exploring to identify another beautiful spot like Sommarøy.
There is a science and method behind my trips. I plan many of them around February or March to guarantee enough daylight to prepare and scout (with hopes that there will be snow on the ground for my photo composition). As a general rule, the fall and spring equinoxes are optimal times for watching the northern lights. But a solar storm can occur at any time. Although March is an equinox month, there is still incredible solar activity in February (and snow on the ground). I have gone in November before, but the days were much too short to explore new beaches and compositions. I always make sure I am there for two weeks, that way I’m almost guaranteed to see an aurora, around the times they are most common.
By making flight and car rental arrangements several months in advance, I make sure that my travel logistics are ready when I land overseas. I also check multiple websites for weather and solar activity updates in the areas before and during my travel. Solar eruptions—which cause the solar wind and storms that produce auroras—take about two days to reach the Earth, so keeping up to date on this activity during your trip could help you to witness some spectacular solar storms.
The longer you spend the better your chance to capture that epic image. Over the course of my two-week-long trips, I’ll usually come home with what I feel are two or three excellent shots.
But it’s hard to anticipate sometimes. One night in Tromsø, when we were snowed in, we met an Australian pilot who had been coming there with his wife for six weeks total. But he was coming for only a week at a time, and he still hadn’t seen the northern lights. We showed him some pictures from our cameras, and he was just shaking his head.
In addition to making the time investment, it helps to always have a camera ready. I remember driving through the mountains of Norway, when all of a sudden, a beautiful aurora spread across the sky. I slammed on the brakes and pulled to the side of the road. You never know how long the display will last. I grabbed my camera, set up my tripod, and got a couple beautiful photos. If I had to dig gear from my bags, I would have missed the window of opportunity.
For the exposure of my northern light photos, I set my camera’s ISO to 8,000 with an aperture of 2.8 and a shutter speed of 10-30 seconds. Any longer than 30 seconds will produce star trails in the sky. Even a really boring aurora will appear as a darker green at 30 seconds, but if the aurora is active with spikes and movement, the lights will smear into a big blob. For this reason, my default shutter speed is 10 seconds, and I’ll use a shutter speed of 1-to-4 seconds when the lights are really dancing.
Sometimes, the images will surprise you long after the trip is over. Some of my favorite images were shots that I thought might have been duds until I sat down at the computer to review. And it’s another opportunity to relive the adventure.
For some of the online resources used by the author to plan his Norwegian photo trips, visit the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Geophysical Institute’s aurora borealis forecasting site (gi.alaska.edu/auroraforecast), a solar storm and flare monitoring site (spaceweather.com), and a European site featuring a solar wind gauge for chasing the northern lights in Europe (aurora-service.eu). View the author’s photography at derekburdenyphotography.com. The author himself is pictured below.
This article is printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.