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You can only see the northern lights when the sky is dark. During the light nights of the Arctic summer, the aurora may be active – but it won’t be visible because the light emitted by the aurora is much weaker than sunlight.
The best time to see the northern lights is when the sky is clear of any clouds. Some people claim the aurora comes out when temperatures are colder. This isn’t the case – it’s just that when the skies are cloudless, temperatures tend to drop.
The northern lights are most commonly seen between 17:00 and 02:00. They don’t usually exhibit for long – they may only show for a few minutes, then glide away before returning. A good display may last for no longer than a quarter or half an hour, though, if you’re really lucky, it could extend to a couple of hours or longer.
The aurora is at its most active around the equinoxes – that’s to say, in March and September. The end of August and early September are good times to travel if you’re a keen hiker, yet still want to try your luck with the lights – at this time of year the snow hasn’t fallen, but the night-time skies are dark.
The northern lights become more active and intense around the peak of a sunspot cycle, and in the three to four years immediately following the peak.
The waxing and waning of the moon makes no difference to the northern lights. While a full moon lightens the sky, and may therefore reduce the visual intensity of a display, the northern lights can be seen at all stages of the moon’s cycle. In fact, seeing the Northern Lights behind a full moon is quite a spectacular sight.
The Arctic Circle sits at 66°33’N. At this point of latitude the sun doesn’t rise on the day of the winter solstice (and doesn’t set at the summer solstice), though, as the sun is hovering just below the horizon, the Arctic Circle never goes completely dark – there’s always a bit of dusky twilight. The further north into the Arctic Circle you go, the longer the periods of winter darkness.
To give you an idea of the temperatures you’ll face whilst in search of the northern lights, the average daily temperatures in degrees Celsius are listed below for Tromsø. Remember, wind-chill factor can reduce these figures.
Tromsø Sep 6.9°C / Oct 2.7°C / Nov -1.2°C / Dec -3.4°C / Jan -4.4°C / Feb -4.3°C / Mar -2.8°C
This occurs when the skin and underlying tissue freeze due to extended exposure to very low temperatures. It can affect any part of your body, but the extremities, such as the hands, feet, ears, nose and lips, are most likely to be affected. However, with the right clothing and sensible precautions frostbite can be avoided.
With compact cameras, photographing the northern lights is often a matter of luck, although a night-time setting sometimes helps. Capturing that perfect shot can be surprisingly easy, however, if you use an SLR camera that allows long exposures of 10 to 20 seconds together with a tripod.
For the best results you’ll also want a lens with a wide aperture (f2.8 is good enough, f2.4 is better and f1.4 is best) and a wide angle. Experienced northern lights photographers often wrap foam around their tripod’s legs to prevent them-selves from touching the metal with bare fingers (the skin sticks). Many photographers prefer to use a cable release – but just pressing the button can also work well. It’s also a good idea to wear a thin pair of gloves to protect your skin from frostbite – but remember the protection thin gloves offer will last only a few minutes in cold conditions. Carry thick mitts, too. Plus, you’ll need to take a headlamp so you can see what you’re doing in the dark.
Camera batteries die fast in cold temperatures. Always carry a spare, and keep it tucked into your clothing, close to your skin to keep it warm. Even better, buy a battery grip (they cost from about £100) and load it with lithium AA batteries – these keep their charge for a reasonable period. Try not to take your camera indoors with you as the lens will fog up with the change in temperature and, when you go outside again, the condensation will turn to ice. If you must take your camera indoors, put it in a plastic bag – ziplock seals work well.
When selecting a location for your photography, try to find a place with some foreground – a tent or building lit from the inside, or some trees – that will give your pictures perspective. For the best outcome, an ISO of 400 is probably best; go up to 800 and the photos can be noisy. Set the focus to infinity and open up the aperture as wide as your lens will allow. If you can, turn off the LCD display as its light will interfere with your vision through the viewfinder in the dark. Then just point and shoot and pray.
One last word: unless you have a fisheye lens, your camera will only capture a fragment of the sky, and during a really spectacular display, the northern lights work their magic across 360°. It’s easy to get carried away with photography – but for the best experience, remember to take a few moments just to step back and enjoy the show.
Old-fashioned film cameras can work well in cold temperatures as they are not as reliant on battery power as their digital replacements. Be careful when winding on film, however – in cold weather it can become brittle and break. Changing film, too, can be tricky with cold, glove-clad hands. It can also be difficult to develop film to reproduce the colour of the northern lights correctly. Often they appear far greener in photographs than they do to the eye.
It is virtually impossible to film the northern lights using a regular movie recorder. To record moving images of the northern lights, expensive specialist equipment is required.
There is never a guarantee of spotting the northern lights, but northern lights forecasting is generally accurate – it’s much more reliable than the weather forecast. The forecast corresponds to the planetary magnetic index (Kp) on a scale of one to nine, with one being very low activity and nine very high. The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska has an excellent website (www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/Europe/), which allows you to view predicted activity in all auroral regions. You can also sign up for northern lights forecast email alerts that tell you when activity rises above four to five on the Kp scale. There are also many other sites that help to predict and forecast the northern lights or the aurora borealis.
We have a page dedicated to answering this question. For information about the northern lights, please click here: Information about Aurora Borealis!
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