Northern Lights Season 16/17

A Brief Summary of the Northern Lights Season 2016/17

by Diego Ferioli

Here in Tromsø, Norway, at 69°N, we are approaching the inevitable end of yet another great Northern Light season. We started our Northern Light Chase tours on October 15th, and we will run our last tours on March 31st. With an increasing flux of tourists who visit us each year, Tromsø has indisputably become the world capital of Aurora. However, we find that increasing interest in Tromsø as a major destination for winter tourists who have seeing the Aurora Borealis as their number one priority does not always correspond to increasing awareness of the way this elusive and complicated natural phenomenon works. So we decided to inaugurate a row of blog posts to help Aurora enthusiasts to plan their future trips – and most importantly, make them successful!

Yes, as you guessed, there are times when we do not find the Northern Lights, both because of bad weather over the whole region and because of low Aurora activity. In Tromsø you will find companies and individuals that promise, or guarantee the Aurora, yet this is an impossible claim to make, as the Aurora is a natural phenomenon that we can predict only to a certain extent. While we neither can nor want to promise the Northern Lights, we offer advantageous rates for successive trips, up to 50% off in case no lights are seen. But even better is to assist our Aurora chasers, helping them find the best dates to see as much Aurora as possible. We reply daily to hundreds of enquiries and actively encourage to move the dates of excursions around, to the days that look best on the forecast.

Strong (KP6) Aurora at dusk, August 26th 2015. Photo: Truls Tiller

The Northern Lights do not depend on the season of the year. Aurora activity is always there, and occurs both on the daylight and the night side of the Earth. Yet we can only see the Northern Lights when it’s dark enough, and the darker the better, due to the contrast between the Lights and the dark sky in the background (that is why many people try to avoid full moon night, when the sky is much brighter). Here in Tromsø we have Midnight Sun from mid-May till the end of July, and we don’t really get real darkness at night until later in August. Contrary to popular belief, when the Sun is just below the horizon we cannot have total darkness, and this period of partial darkness or twilight is very long, both during the Polar Night in wintertime, and right after the end of the Midnight Sun in summertime. On August 1st, the sun rises at 2:23AM and sets at 11:12PM; by the end of the month, it rises at 4:48PM and sets at 20:28. Within only one month, we get 5 hours less daylight! It is not impossible to see the Northern Lights already  in late August, but that will have to be around midnight or even later. Although it’s impossible to predict exactly at what time the Aurora will appear, statistically we see it most of the time before midnight, in the early hours of the night, reaching a peak between 10PM and midnight, and then fading out. The length of the Aurora display depends a lot on the strength of the solar activity on a particular night, so while we can get very nice Aurora on nights with low activity, we get to see it for much longer time and at irregular hours from the afternoon till early morning.

Mid-strong Aurora (KP5) with thin high clouds, November 25th 2016. Photo: Diego Ferioli.

So in order to have optimal conditions, we have to wait until end of September, or even better, October. Last autumn we had really intense Aurora activity right at the beginning of October, and when we started running tours we really started head-on! Usually October and November can have quite unstable weather, which stabilizes itself later on in late winter; this winter, however, we found quite the opposite, with very good and stable weather with little to no precipitations until mid December. Snow was late this year, but as it’s expected it snowed during Christmas holidays, which made Aurora hunting quite hard during this especially busy period.

The strongest Northern Lights activity was around October 1st, and it continued for around 10 days at a decreasing rate until reaching a still stand around October 11th; then it increased again slowly, reaching a maximum on October 16th, which lasted around 3 days and plummeted on the 20th with low levels of activity. Already on the 22nd, however, it skyrocketed again, and we had incredibly strong Auroras until the end of the month and beyond! The activity fell again to a minimum only on the 5th of November, and started climbing again on the 9th, and that lasted for a whole week, with levels regularly up to KP6 until November 15th. The following days registered sporadic activity and generally low levels with some sudden highs, until the sky exploded again between November 21st and 29th, so for well over a week.

Strong Aurora (KP8) with nearly full moon seen on December 9th 2016. Photo: Diego Ferioli

December started quietly, for a week or so, but from the 6th until the 11th we registered exceptionally high Northern Lights activity until KP8, while we were having still very good and stable weather. Levels were low again for around 6 days, and on the 17th they rose dramatically, reaching very high values on the 21st with a sustained KP7 throughout early evening. Strong activity lasted until the 27th, with days with bad weather in between, and fell again to a minimum and rose again on New Year’s Eve.

January was also very good, with a G1 minor geomagnetic storm from the 4th to the 5th and high levels between KP4 and KP7 until the middle of the month. In the second half of January the Northern Lights activity was less stable and generally more moderate, and that was a fortunate coincidence because at the same time we had very humid and mild weather. During this period the temperature in Tromsø fluctuated a lot and went from -13°C to a surprising +7°C, while most of Central and Southern Europe was experiencing a little Ice Age. On the 30th and 31st of January we had high levels again, coinciding with many Asian visitors due to Chinese New Year, and strong activity continued well into February.

Hard-earned result of a difficult Northern Light Chase with bad, mild weather on January 24th. Photo: Diego Ferioli

After Christmas, February is the busiest period for us. Tromsø is bustling with enthusiastic visitors from all over the world, who are not only looking for the Northern Lights, but also for lots of sunshine and fresh snow to play with during the day! Surprisingly, by early February there was almost no more snow around, melted by copious rainfall and warmer temperatures that hit us during the second half of January. The unusual thing was also that at the Finnish and Swedish borders, some 2 and a half hours away from Tromsø towards inland, where the temperature should be at least 15 degrees lower than in the city and the sky consequently clearer, the weather was just the same as at the coast. This coincided with a record low sea ice in the Arctic, and Longyearbyen up on Svalbard being the warmest place in Norway, even warmer than the far South! Between the 11th and the 17th we had a full week of bad weather that coincided with somewhat low activity. Activity was strong again on the 17th-18th, then about a week later again on the 23rd-24th, and decreasing again towards the end of the month.

March so far has been probably the best month of the Northern Lights season, with extremely strong activity and sustained Aurora from the 1st till the 10th, and again towards the middle point of the month. It is also the snowiest month of all, so those who chose to come in March to enjoy long sunny days on the fresh snow were happy, while chasing the Northern Lights at night was at times challenging. During this time it is not uncommon to see car accidents during the night due to the snow, typically with rental cars as the victims, and the best places for our buses full of snow, making it impossible to park. In spite of the difficulties, we have brought home thousands of great pictures. Towards the end of the month the sun starts setting very late already, and by the time we start our chase it is not completely dark yet, but it usually gets dark while we are driving to our first locations. On the last Sunday of March we reset our watches to summer time, and until the 31st we start our chase 1 hour later (7:30PM instead of 6:30PM).

To sum up, thus, the best periods this year have been second half of October, mid November, beginning of December, beginning of January and beginning of March. Generally, we can observe that the Northern Lights activity increases and decreases at more or less regular intervals, lasting on average between 5 and 10 days. That is why we recommend to ideally stay in Tromsø or North Scandinavia for around a week, and join a Northern Lights tour for at least 3 nights, being flexible with one’s day program in case reshuffling the days around becomes necessary due to bad weather. Booking in advance is necessary during the busiest periods (Christmas Holidays and most of February until mid March), and in case of bad weather that is not a problem, as we can always reschedule a tour to any date with a more favorable forecast; however, that is only possible when our guests stay in town long enough. To book a Northern Lights Chase, use this link: http://booking.arcticguideservice.com/

It is important not to forget that chasing the Northern Lights is a gamble, and the weather forecast can be wrong! We have seen people who were not convinced about the weather or the Aurora forecast and chose not to join, and were very disappointed the next day when they realized that we saw very good Lights; and exactly the opposite experience can also be possible. Some people want to be reassured 100% that they will see the Lights, which is often impossible, while others choose to play the game with no expectations, and often win. The positive thing is that the Aurora always gives her lovers a second chance!

The 27-day Northern Lights forecast is a very reliable tool because it is based on the observation of the sun and corresponds to one sun cycle. It is therefore very possible to plan ahead one’s trip with an advance up to 27 days, making it fairly safe. The weather is harder to predict, but within one week time frame, one is likely to experience both the maximum and the minimum levels of activity, and while here in town, plan day by day based on a relatively reliable 3-day weather forecast. Anything beyond 3 days cannot be considered reliable. Our office staff and guides are spending most of their time studying the weather and will be happy to analyse the forecast with you while you’re here in town! So, see you soon in Tromsø!