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At What Time Do the Northern Lights Appear?

Timing is a key factor when you want to see the Aurora Borealis. You can use an Aurora app to help you decide what time the aurora might be visible, but believe me, it may be difficult anyway. Let me tell you why by telling the story about last Saturday night.

Snowy night landscape and aurora borealis
Very low northern lights activity on arrival. The wind had shaped the snow into beautiful formations.

I get asked quite often what time the aurora will appear. My answer is always that there is no way to know more than possibly one hour before it happens. Although I am an experienced aurora photographer I still can't tell what time it will happen. But I know about the potential.

It all depends on the sun

My aurora app can tell me how the solar wind looks. How dense it is, how fast it's moving and what kind of magnetic polarity it has. I use SpaceWeatherLive but all aurora apps get their data from the same sources. Those three make up the potential of the aurora borealis. But there are many factors involved so even when it looks like the northern lights should be visible, sometimes you have to wait for it. Or sometimes nothing happens.

On Saturday 17 February 2024 the potential in the solar wind was ok. Not great but good enough. I was pretty sure that I would see some green in the sky. I went out at 11 PM and went to a harbor 10 minutes from home.

When is midnight, really?

The northern lights are often more active close to midnight. Now you have to understand that midnight isn't necessarily 12 PM. It's the time when your location is opposite to the sun. In other words, it's the moment when the sun reaches its lowest point under the horizon, or maybe it's easier to think about it like 12 hours from the moment when the sun peaks in the sky. I need to write a blog post about this, too. I promise to do it within February 2024!

Now the numbers in my aurora app told me the northern lights should be able to appear, but there was almost no green visible so I just had to wait. My experience says that waiting often pays off. Not always, though, but this time it did.

Northern lights over a frozen sea and a metal statue
The first active part of the northern lights were beautiful. But who's standing there in the snow?

The first modest appearance came 20 minutes later. It lasted for 4 minutes before fading. But I kept waiting. The temperature was –7° Celsius (19°F) so not extremely cold (for me anyway) but the wind was strong. We had got 20 centimeters of snow the night before and the wind worked diligently to create beautiful patterns and snow dunes.

Meet, “Plåtis”, my photographer colleague!

I had brought a small metal sculpture with me, a photographer made of screws, nuts, and metal scrap. It normally stands on a shelf in my office, but I wanted it to get some real aurora photography experience. :D

Photographer of steel standing in snow.
”Plåtis” is an untranslatable name, but it refers both to photography and to the material he is built from.

Silhouette of a small statue in the snow
“Plåtis” waiting patiently for the next auroral phase. He has even more patience than I have!

After waiting for another 25 minutes the second wave of auroral activity came. Even less strong this time. Before it happened I could not have guessed when the aurora would become active again. I just had to wait and see. It was now midnight and when the second wave showed variations in the activity level for 15 minutes before the aurora once again faded.

Aurora borealis and a tiny metal statue
The second phase came and went. My little friend pointed his camera in the right direction this time.

I waited for another 30 minutes before deciding to go home. But as I drove through town and over the bridge I saw the aurora once again being stronger. I stopped and took more photos by the church. The streetlights are shut off during the night in my town which makes aurora photography possible unless you are close to the main street which has the lights on.

At 1:40 AM I decided once again to go home. Now came the real surprise. According to my aurora app the potential was now lower than before and continued to fall. But when I parked my car by my house I saw the strongest northern lights activity that night. I simply couldn't go inside but had to jump into my car and find a better location. Too many houses were blocking the view from my front yard.

I drove only a few hundred meters when I realized the activity already seemed to decrease so I stopped by the old movie theatre, Scala, and managed to catch the last glimpse of the green dance before it faded into a blurry arch.

Church and aurora borealis
Nykarleby Church and the northern lights.

Wooden houses and northern lights
Movie theater Scala and the last moments of the strongest auroral activity this night.

It was almost 2 AM when I parked my car for the second time and I took my last shots on my street before heading inside.

Conclusion: What time do the northern lights really peak?

This time the peak came at 1:45 AM. I have seen the aurora peaking at 8 PM and 3 AM but when I look at my statistics, it often peaks between 11 PM and 12:30 AM. I would never tell anybody that that's the time to go out and look at the northern lights. The time when they are active are totally connected to the solar wind.


The photo below was taken during a night when the northern lights were active for hours. Part of the story can be read in the webshop.


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