Northern Lights

Seeing the Northern Lights in Shetland

One of the great experiences during the Shetland winter is the ‘Northern Lights’, or aurora borealis.  Aurorae occur in the sky above the earth’s polar regions.  The northern sky takes on a greenish glow, with other colours such as pink, blue, orange or purple also present at times.  Often, there are well-defined rays or ‘curtains’ of light.  Displays vary greatly in intensity – and may do so over an hour or so - but an outstanding display can occupy the whole of the northern half of the sky and shed a noticeable light over the landscape.  Less powerful aurorae will produce a uniform glow towards the north-west.

Aurorae happen when electrically charged particles originating from the sun collide with particles energised by the earth’s magnetic field.  The volume of solar particles varies according to the amount of solar electrical activity.  A brilliant aurora on one evening may followed by a faint one the following evening, or by no aurora at all.  Occasionally, great bursts of solar energy are released and these produce the most dramatic effects.

Because Shetland lies closer to the north pole than any other part of the British Isles, it’s the best place to see the ‘Northern Lights’.  Over a typical winter, a keen observer checking the skies on every clear night could certainly expect to see the aurora several times, with quite a number of low-level displays and possibly one or two more spectacular ones.  However, the important thing to bear in mind is that aurorae are hard to predict and, even if the aurora is present, thick cloud may stop you seeing it.  

There are various internet sites (for example this Space Weather one) that provide up-to-date information on the strength of solar emissions and an estimate of the area over which the aurora may be visible.  Mobile phone applications (such as this NASA one) can also be useful.  These can alert you to likely auroral displays, though – because of the difficulty in forecasting – they’re mainly useful while you’re in Shetland.  

Several Shetland photographers, for example Ivan Hawick and Austin Taylor, have aurora images on their websites.  Taking your own aurora photographs isn’t particularly difficult, provided that you have a tripod and your camera can be set for exposures of, say, 30 seconds, probably with a setting of 200 or 400ASA.  Some cameras will take good pictures on an automatic setting with the flash turned off.  The exposure and aperture will vary according to the brightness of the display, and you can of course experiment.  You may need to use manual focusing.

Should you come to Shetland in winter solely to see the aurora?  The straight answer is no, because you might well be disappointed, especially if you stay for just a few days.  Our advice is that you should consider a visit if you enjoy the outdoors in winter and are happy to combine aurora-watching with some wonderful walking, some wildlife watching, use of our superb indoor leisure facilities and some good food.  Virtually all of our archaeological sites are open, too and you might also fit in one of our fire festivals, which occur between January and March.  In general, aurorae are most likely to be seen between mid-October and mid-March; it helps greatly to avoid times when there is a full moon and of course you should move away from areas with street lighting, particularly Lerwick, to have the best view.

Finally, don’t forget to wrap up warmly!  Aurora-watching may take you outside for several hours on cold nights and several layers of insulation are best if you’re going to feel comfortable.  If you’re away from your accommodation, a flask of hot tea or coffee is also a very good idea.

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