"Wow! You couldn't possibly see that in Denmark, could you?". So goes the public opinion about the northern lights. Try and watch closer...
The northern lights are a physicochemical phenomenon that happens naturally on Earth. The Sun sends lethal electrically charged particles into outer space, and some of these powerful streams can also target our planet. Fortunately for us, the Earth’s magnetic field protect us against the life-threatening plasma by deviating the course of its high-energy blast. Except for one region: the poles. At the northern and southern extremity of the Earth, the lines of force of the magnetosphere join and open a weak spot where particles can penetrate the atmosphere. Descending along the lines at the poles, the plasma collides with atmospheric molecules, resulting in them losing energy in the form of light: they create the aurorae (Borealis in the northern hemisphere, Australis in the southern hemisphere). The color produced by the northern and southern lights differs, depending on which molecules the charged particles collide with: green or red for oxygen, purple and blues for nitrogen.
Aurorae can easily be seen at high latitudes (above 60 degrees N or S) and these regions do not need a very powerful solar storm to witness the green and purple bands up overhead. As a matter of fact, most people believe that these beautiful and strange lights only happen in the far North, like Sweden, Norway, Island, Canada or Russia. During a strong solar event, they can be seen as far as southern Europe, and there have been rare and historical sighting reports in northern Australia, sub-saharan Africa and Mexico! However unique these events can be, it is not rare to witness the aurorae at higher mid-latitude like Denmark, Estonia, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, northern Germany, northern US…
Before setteling down in Denmark, I, like most Danes, had no idea that one could possibly witness the northern lights. In 2015, as I was on the Ordrup beach in the northwest of Zealand (Sjælland), I was out taking pictures of the milky way on a clear night. My camera was facing east/north-east and I noticed an usual purple color in the upper left-hand corner of my frame. As I tried to investigate further, taking several shots in different directions, I was stunned by these green and purple sort of curtains. ‘It couldn’t possibly be…’ I thought. First thing in the morning, I asked one of my colleagues who had lived in the area for awhile, for a tangible explanation. ‘Well, it looks like you got lucky!’, he replied. I had just captured my first northern lights ever, and it was in Denmark! Of course the first shots looked horrible, as I didn’t know how to photograph them with the right settings. I rapidly discovered, despite the common opinion, that the northern lights are actually often visible in the country. As I got better at shooting them, I decided to make my case and prove that northern lights can be sighted in Denmark and encourage the Danes to go out and take a look! As of 2016, I recorded about 40 times where the light could be caught on camera, including about 20 times where they got bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.
Although here is the trick. It is not as easy as it seems to capture the dancing glow in southern Scandinavia. Most of the time one will have to look towards the North, as the aurorae will appear just above the horizon. During a strong solar storm, they spread southwards and I have just recently witnessed a G4 display (Kp 8 on a scale of 9), that let me see the lights above my head for a couple of minutes (in the film: 2’47’’).
The first thing to keep in mind is that the northern lights can only be seen on a clear, dark and cloudless night, almost year-round (excluding June and July when the nights are too bright). Clouds will just block the view and the moonlight will wash out the aurora. Now Denmark is under the influence of the Gulf stream, and on top of that, the country is surrounded by seas, creating very humid, windy and moist weather conditions. That will limit your chances for sure, as the pristine and sharp nightskies make a rare appearance.
Secondly, you should not expect the aurora to be as strong as they can be up north, the reason being that since they are lower on the northern horizon, the light has to cross more atmosphere (so more gas or clouds) to reach your eye or camera. It is exactly like the sun getting dimmer and changing color during a sunset. That can be really challenging for photographers, because one has to boost up the camera settings (ISO, f/stop or exposure time) in a way that can either bring too much noise, too much vignetting or unsharp frames.
Eventually one has to have a tremendous amount of patience as the northern lights are not served on a silver platter in Denmark! The NOAA and space weather forecasters are doing their best to predict geomagnetic storms, and in that way, give you an aurora forecast, but because of the setbacks stated earlier, and also the fact that predictions are just a probability and not a certainty, you are not necessarily going to be rewarded all the time. What my film does not show is that I have spent hundreds of hours, shot thousands of pictures and walked long distances in the Odsherred shire to come to this result. Many times I have stayed and waited for hours, static in the cold, for the aurora to show up, and many times I have come home empty-handed. That’s what makes aurora hunting so exciting in Denmark, because you don’t know for sure what you are going to get. However when they appear in front of you, I can assure you that it is such a rush of adrenaline. You don’t really know what’s happening in front of you. The whole northern horizon catches on fire and the majestic pillars remind you of how small you are. It is a such a magnificent, unbelievable and humbling experience. I tried to shoot the Danish aurora as well as I could, to showcase their patterns, shapes, movements and colors.
The Danish perspective actually gives another dimension and experience to the northern lights. Since you see them from the edge of the storm, they offer the full spectrum of their colors, from green to purple and blue. They put on a great show as they advance towards you in a magical explosion, and rightfully so, because they actually look like curtains opening and closing on the Baltic scene. I have had so many emotional adventures shooting the aurora in Denmark, and I encourage everyone living or visiting Denmark to get out of town, away from the disturbing city lights, bring a warm blanket and enjoy the Danish aurora!
My mission has been to educate others to the beauties of the night sky and the northern lights. As a growing community is raising its awareness about the phenomenon, a small group of dedicated photographers, including Thomas Henriksen, Colin Abot, Danny Saust and myself, have started a Facebook group about sky phenomena in Denmark, where Danes can get aurora notifications and share their pictures or movies about the northern lights. We strongly encourage you to join if you’d like to be part of our community and experience the lights (join here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1806770426203326/).