Here’s what Solar Maximum means for Astrophotography in 2024
You will undoubtedly see news from unusual places about auroras being visible in our night skies more frequently than we’re used to. There’s a good reason for all this news: Solar Maximum. We don’t know for sure when the solar maximum will arrive. It will be announced when it happens. The US-based National Oceanic and Aerospace Administration (NOAA) originally forecasted the peak of Solar Cycle 25 to occur in July 2025. However, they have since revised this estimate to early to mid-2024.
Solar Maximum is the period of the Solar Cycle during which the highest number of sunspots appear. This is caused by the overall activity of the sun. Each Solar Cycle lasts for approximately 11 years, and this is the 25th Solar Cycle that has been observed and recorded. More sunspots result in more solar flares and a more interesting solar wind, which, on Earth, means a heightened level of Aurora.
To best see the difference between what’s happening on the sun, I made a quick comparison image. Here are the Solar Flares and Active Regions of the heliosphere between December 10, 2019, and December 10, 2023:
Aurora Mechanics – High-Speed Lesson
The solar wind drives the Aurora Polaris (collective term for northern and southern lights). Several things can happen that may result in the right conditions, including solar flares resulting in CMEs, a hot topic right now. In any case, Helium plasma from the sun is constantly bombarding us. This plasma comes at speeds of hundreds of km per second with varying densities, charges, and polarities.
The solar wind’s speed and composition change, and it’s affected by what’s happening in front of it and behind it. For example, a CME can compress the solar wind ahead, or a coronal hole can increase the speed to enhance solar wind. The entire science behind the Aurora is young, and forecasting space weather is complicated. The gist of what we need is a strong Interplanetary Magnetic Field (Bt) and a negative polarity in the solar wind. This isn’t essential – it’s a guide more than a rule.
During Solar Maximum, we expect more of the right conditions to present themselves more often. We’re already seeing an increase in the number of substorms and their intensities. As the solar wind travels to Earth, it interacts with our magnetosphere and can be drawn into our upper atmosphere. When the particles hit the gas particles, atoms can exchange, releasing the energy as light. This causes us to see lights in the skies in polar regions. The most common colors are aquamarine and green, but recently, on the way to Solar Maximum, we’ve had some incredible colors where I live in Lofoten, Norway.
Where and when to see the Aurora
The above photo was shot 15 minutes from my home in Lofoten, Norway, at 68º North. This view faces south, and when we see the Aurora on the horizon, we see it 10º away, which is 11,110km. It was overhead Oslo, Stockholm, Shetland Islands, and the upper continental USA. Taking another 10º into account, it would have been visible on the northern horizon as far south as the European Alps or Texas! The answer is simple to answer the most commonly asked questions of when and where to see the Northern Lights.
There’s no better time than the present; the best places are in the Auroral Oval. I live and work in Svolvær, Norway, and I have northern lights almost every night. Finding clear skies is the more significant challenge, but I’d recommend using the local knowledge of a local guide. Here are some of the best destinations with fantastic local guides operating: –
- Svolvær, Lofoten Islands, Norway
- Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland
- Tromsø, Norway
- Kiruna, Lapland, Sweden
- Kittilä, Lapland, Finland
- Reykjavík, Iceland
- Churchill, Canada
- Fairbanks, Alaska
This is by no means an exhaustive list. It simply represents places where I know excellent Aurora guides operate. A Northern Lights Hunt is more accurately described as a cloud evasion tour, and your guide should fully understand the local weather systems to be able to find the clearest skies, maximizing your aurora-watching time.
What to expect
Because the Aurora is driven by the solar wind and its visibility and strength are determined by many variables, it won’t always be strong, vivid, or dynamic. My best advice for those who want to see and shoot the Aurora is to give it about a week to increase your chances of something great happening. Be ready for anything and expect the unexpected. The Space Weather Prediction Centre, NOAA, and other agencies do an outstanding job of forecasting space weather and observing solar events. Still, sometimes, things slip through the cracks, and we get surprises.
Always have your camera, batteries, and memory cards ready because the Aurora won’t wait for you. If you see something happening in the sky, get outside immediately so you don’t miss it. And just for the sake of the many, many comments I call about the Aurora signifying the end of the world on my social media, I’ll point out that the colors are representative of the gas involved in the collisions with the solar wind and their altitude (and subsequent wavelength.) Red, for example, signifies Oxygen molecules being struck at high altitudes. It does not indicate the world’s end or weakness in our magnetosphere.
Have you seen the Northern Lights? Do you have a trip planned? I’d love to know what you do, and if you’d like any advice, feel free to reach out to me on social media where I’m @idavewilliams.
Dave Williams is an accomplished travel photographer, writer, and best-selling author from the UK. He is also a photography educator and published Aurora expert. Dave has traveled extensively in recent years, capturing stunning images from around the world in a modified van. His work has been featured in various publications and he has worked with notable brands such as Skoda, EE, Boeing, Huawei, Microsoft, BMW, Conde Nast, Electronic Arts, Discovery, BBC, The Guardian, ESPN, NBC, and many others.