Incredible aurora season: The aurora is one of the best natural spectacles on Earth. Despite being in a period of low solar activity, 2018 was by far the favorite aurora season of my career, and here’s why.
As an astrophotographer, taking pictures of the night sky is my passion and profession. Seeing the aurora for the first is actually what made me choose this path. Gazing at the colorful drapes dancing across the sky completely changed my life about six years ago when I was teaching high school in Denmark. Since then I have been chasing the northern lights actively every year.
At the start of 2018, I even started as an aurora guide and resort manager at the aurora borealis observatory. Little did I know that I was going to experience the best aurora season I had ever witnessed in my short career. The incredible aurora season of 2018 !
It was far from being a done deal, however. As you may or may not know, the auroral activity on Earth depends on the solar activity, which has eleven-year cycles. For the few years being, we are at what we call solar minimum. It is a period of the cycle where the solar activity is reduced and the number of major solar events creating big auroras is very low. Furthermore according to the local population, the weather hasn’t been very lenient this year. They had never seen so much rain in the summer and snow in the winter. Indeed we had a lot of cloudy nights here at the observatory. Not to mention the successive snow storms that prevented us from seeing anything. How on Earth can it be my favorite aurora season to date then?
The first reason is that solar minima actually don’t affect higher geomagnetic latitudes that much. Senja is located right in the middle of what is called the auroral zone. It is a donut-shaped ring where the aurora on Earth is the most frequent. Being right in the middle of this zone lets us peek at an auroral display with even the slightest solar input. In this regard, you can get bright colorful bands and pillars dancing across the sky while the global auroral activity is very low. And this is what we had this year! On average we had 3 to 4 of these bright ‘sub-storms’ per month, as we call them. Since the solar activity is very low, the sub-storms tended to produce quick, sporadic and unexpected shows. You simply couldn’t expect long-lasting auroras produced by big storms. The latter is mostly seen during solar maximum.
Secondly, I was based on location almost all the time. This might seem trivial but it actually makes the difference as to whether or not you will see those sporadic bursts of light and colors. Many people I know who were chasing in a car missed them because they were not ready, or they simply did not realize something was happening. I personally never missed a show this year!
Thirdly, despite the rather poor weather year round, the east of Senja island offers a microclimate. It usually helps the cloud cover scatter enough to peek at the aurora. This year we were extremely lucky with this phenomenon. Every time it was as though the sky cleared up just in time for the big auroral explosion. I remember one particular time where it had been snowing all day. A fairly good auroral activity had been forecast but the weather prospects were not looking too good. Right until 11pm, the blizzard was raging on. However, out of the blue, the clouds started clearing and a few minutes later, one of the biggest aurora shows of 2018 popped out of nowhere in the matter of a few seconds.
Map model showing how the Senja microclimate forms. The red areas are higher elevation zones. The blue circle is the plain trough around Senja and Bardufoss. ©GoogleMaps
Lastly this year has been just exceptional for my personal photography career. I have been able to capture shots that I could only dream of. I got the perfect aurora and milky way reflection picture at the start of the season, which demands very rare atmospheric conditions to achieve. I have also been able to capture incredible aurora shapes like the phoenix, the dragon and the butterfly. The fleeting three days of winter wonderland allowed me to shoot the aurora flower under the full moon. Last but not least, the perfect conditions lined up one night for me to take a shot of our reindeer under a bright and colorful aurora. As an honorable mention, I have also been able to shoot about 200 timelapse sequences, which represents a total of 50 000 pictures and 400 hours in the field on average!
I sincerely hope the 2019 season will be as good and productive as the previous one. In total honestly, I don’t think the weather can get any worst than last year, and I am hopeful that we will get at least as many shows at this year. I have many new ideas in mind for the new season to come. You will be able to discover the results in real-time as I will be writing about the different experiences, so stay tuned! This was an incredible aurora season.