Northern Lights, Barely

February 21 – 24, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

As already mentioned, even during a season of active solar activity, there is no guarantee of seeing the northern lights. Here is what transpired during my three nights in Abisko.

February 21

Snowstorm. Zero visibility. No chance.

I stay indoor while my roommates, a Mexican couple who are only in Abisko for one night, try their luck outside. Their reward is a complete whiteout in the cold.

Side note: For three nights I have three different combination of roommates – two Mexicans, one English old lady, and a Taiwanese student on exchange in Denmark.

February 22

A short-lived moment of sunlight

A brief spell of sunlight in the morning is soon covered up by an overcast sky. If the uncooperative weather persists, I will need to start searching for Monday (Feb 24) night’s accommodation and beyond as STF Abisko Mountain Station (AMS) is booked out.

The cloudy sky reflects my mood. At 8 pm I set out for the frozen lake Torneträsk. Even though I have been reading much about the aurora, I still don’t really know what to expect. Coming to the Arctic is easy; now comes the hard part of waiting in subzero temperature indefinitely for something that may not appear at all.

Halfway to Torneträsk I bump into a guided tour. I follow them at a distance, hopeful they can lead me to a locally well-known spot. To my disappointment their destination is merely an open field, but I set up my gear as well because I find their lavvu (a tent originated from the local Sami people) a good foreground subject.

Waiting for the northern lights

To my naked eyes I am standing under a vast canvas of nothingness, but much to my surprise my camera is telling me otherwise. A 30s exposure reveals a faint hint of green in the sky. For the first time I become convinced it is just a matter of time before the aurora shows up.

The sky starts to clear up, but for two hours the northern lights remain elusive. My feet are getting numb – I should have heeded an online advice and wear two pairs of socks.

Finally, the northern lights appear

Suddenly, without any notice, a large burst of green light emerges in the sky. At long last my effort has been justified. And for five minutes the dancing lights in the sky unequivocally proves its status as one of the world’s most fascinating natural wonder until abruptly all trace of colour vanishes from the sky.

The group leaves soon afterwards. I stay behind for another hour until midnight, hoping to see the aurora once more. My wait is futile, but the northern light’s elusiveness and unpredictability only enhances my appreciation of what I have just seen with my very own eyes.

February 23

An impenetrable blanket of clouds

Today’s Kp index (indicates earth’s magnetic activity, ranges from 0-9) reads a promising 4 (yesterday was 2), but I am keeping my expectation low. Like two days ago the sky is thick with clouds.

Summit of Nuolja Mountain

At 9:30 pm I arrive at the ski lift to the Aurora Sky Station, about a 10-minute walk from AMS. The 595 SEK admission fee includes the rental of thick winter jacket and pants. The ride to the station takes 30 minutes.

50 km/h wind greets me at the summit, giving me a taste how uncompromising the Arctic can easily be. The Aurora Sky Station is in reality nothing more than a café – the real point is having an unparalleled view from the peak of the 1,169m Nuolja Mountain. I don’t feel too cold given I am wearing six layers of clothes, but it is quite a struggle to climb up the snow-covered slope and set up my camera.

Aurora Sky Station

Amid the roaring wind I overheard a very familiar dialect. It is Cantonese, coming from a couple a dozen or so feet to my right. The man, lying down on the snow with his heads behind his head, seems to never have been more comfortable in his life. The woman, on the other hand, is sitting uptight and doesn’t appear particular content with the predicament she finds herself in. She is asking him, repeatedly, to leave. There is no response. Her growing agitation will not take his stonewalling as a response and she finally has it her way.

As these stories tend to go, five minutes after they are gone, a stream of aurora appears high above my head. Unlike yesterday’s, the display tonight is weak. Like a spirit the lights swiftly dart across the sky from the west towards the east. Soon the aurora disappears and taking its place is a snowstorm, reducing visibility to no more than a few feet.

My Taiwanese roommate asks me if the Sky Station is worth it. Like all things aurora related, it depends on that day’s condition. For me it isn’t.

February 24

At 2°C, today is unusually warm. Snow is melting. Roads and trails are covered by ice, turning the simple act of walking an exhausting activity. On the positive side, the clear and sunny weather gives hope that a good night of aurora sighting is ahead.

I deliberate over my options. Should I find another hostel and stay in Abisko for another night? Or should I head to Kiruna and see the Icehotel? I can perhaps go to other places in Lappland.

But now that I have accomplished my main goal of seeing the northern lights, I am more inclined to head to Stockholm than stay in the Arctic. I am intrigued by the Swedish capital’s galleries, museums and bars, and the prospect of some proper food.

How to photograph the aurora

To photograph the northern lights, keep the following in mind:

  • Tripod and cable release are musts
  • Large aperture (f/2.8) ultra wide-angle lens is preferable
  • Shoot in RAW
  • Shoot in M mode
  • Manually focus lens to infinity (double check in live-view)
  • Aperture should always set to largest
  • Turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction

These are the basic rules. For adjustments like ISO, WB and exposure time you have to adjust according to that evening’s condition. Some people recommend boosting the ISO to 3200 – 6400, but I lean on the conservative side and stay between 400 – 1000.

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