Aurora photography is a tricky subject to pursue, but you can make life a little easier by using a good forecasting and warning system that will notify you of potential upcoming solar storms. In this post we’ll take a look at all of the most popular ones that I have been testing, and I’ll make my recommendations for the best.
Note: I will most likely use the terms aurora, aurora borealis and northern lights interchangeably in this article. They are all the same thing.
How can the aurora borealis be forecasted?
Before we talk about the apps that I tested, I think everyone would benefit from a little knowledge. If you’ve studied a lot of photos of the northern lights then you have probably come to understand that on any given night during a solar storm, the shapes, colours and overall look of an auroral display can vary dramatically. No matter how many times you venture out and are lucky enough to catch the lights, it’ll look a little different.
Whilst there is no real way to forecast how the colours and shapes will form in the sky, you can, with reasonable certainty, predict when and where the lights will be visible.
Solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun (CMEs) send electrons and protons shooting away from the sun at speeds in excess 3million mp/h, causing what is known as a geomagnetic storm when it reaches the Earth. As these charged particles smash into the oxygen and nitrogen that makes up the majority of our atmosphere, it creates magical colours in the sky.
After these eruptive solar events, the CME will sweep past the earth somewhere between 1 and 3 days later, causing strong auroral activity. It’s not possible to forecast a solar flare or a CME, but once those events take place on the sun, auroral activity in the earth’s atmosphere can be forecast a few days later.
Aside from these dramatic solar flares and CMEs, sunspots also act like hoses that spray energy towards the earth in a constant solar wind, often with enough strength to cause aurora at higher latitudes. Sunspots can last a long time on the sun’s surface, and with the sun revolving on its axis every 27-28 days, activity caused by the sun’s current largest sunspots can be predicted nearly about 27 days in advance.
A good aurora app or forecasting service will keep track of this predicted activity for you, and notify you when things are about to get good!
If you want to dig deeper into the technicalities of solar storms, I would highly recommend this solar storm FAQ on the NASA website. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction website also has a great description of sunspots among other things.
Patience is still important
In most cases when the aurora is active there will be an ongoing green hue to the sky, with soft-edged shifting shapes that may or may not be visible all the time with the naked eye. Whilst this general green tint to the sky can still make some captivating images, what you really want to wait for are the much more intense solar sub-storms.
These sub-storms usually last for shorter periods of perhaps 5-10 minutes, and it’s in these more intense moments of the geomagnetic storm that you will get the best photographic opportunities. Huge snaking bands of dancing green light can sometimes be seen across the sky, with colourful pillars of light dancing along them.
While it’s possible to make a general prediction for high auroral activity on a specific night, it is not possible to predict when these incredible sub-storms will happen, and that is where patience is important.
The lead photo at the top of this article is a prime example, photographed during a solar storm just a couple of days ago near my home in the Canadian Yukon. When I saw that activity was predicted to be high, I drove to a mountainous region of Kluane National Park for the night and set up near an open lake, facing north. All night my longer exposures showed a lot of interesting colour in the sky, but I had to wait for three hours before I got the first sub-storm that injected some additional dramatic shapes and colours into the scene. Several other sub-storms took place that night, but their timing and duration is totally unpredictable. All you can do is sit and wait.
If you’re going to chase aurora photographs, be prepared for a long cold night so you can wait for these short periods of higher activity. It’s usually well worth it! If you aren’t familiar with shooting in cold conditions, you might also want to read my exhaustive group test of the best photography gloves, and also my guide to photographing in extreme cold conditions.
Useful Aurora Notification Website
While I do believe that you’ll get more out of using a dedicated iOS or Android aurora forecast and prediction app, I first started my interest in aurora watching by using the email notification service that is provided by Aurorawatch.ca, a service that appears to be run by 4 doctors from Athabasca University.
On the website you’ll find a simple form to leave them your email, and you can choose from receiving “Red Alerts Only” or “Both Yellow and Red Alerts”.
It’s important to note that this service is predicting aurora activity in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. That said, even if you don’t live in Edmonton, a red alert for that area will also indicate high activity at similar latitudes across the globe, just at slight different times in the day. Anything east of Edmonton will take place earlier, and west will be a little later as the lights sweep east to west across the globe based on the earth’s rotation.
Even when I was living in British Columbia, far south of Edmonton, I could still gauge on which days the lights were likely to be visible by paying attention to the red alerts that were issued, indicating a strong aurora that would likely be seen at much lower latitudes.
Even if you don’t sign up for the notification service, the website has some good insights and data on current conditions.
For those that are worried about giving up their email address to whoever runs that website, I can say that in over 5 years of being signed up to it, I have never received any kind of spam from them. Just simple red or yellow alert emails when appropriate. At the time of writing this post, their site says they have 66,000 subscribers.
Best Aurora Watching Apps
Once I moved to the Yukon and had a far better chance of seeing the norther lights on a regular basis, I began investigating the various apps that are out there. Most apps are free, but require paid upgrades if you want to get notifications, or access long-term forecasts. Fees are generally modest, though, and I don’t think I paid more than $5 for any of the various upgrades that I purchased during my testing.
With such low fees, I decided to remove cost from the equation when figuring out which apps were best. I really don’t think it’s worth quibbling between an app that charges $3.50 and one that charges $2.50. If the more expensive app is better, I’m never going to consider the cheaper one just save myself a dollar. When it comes to photographing the aurora, most of you have probably spent thousands of dollars on cameras, lenses and perhaps even global travel to try and capture them, so I’m guessing nobody none of you are that worries about saving a dollar or two either.
General aurora forecast app notes
Compared to the Edmonton-based email notification service I mentioned earlier, the beauty of mobile apps is that they can get you forecasted and realtime conditions for your current location. This is certainly helpful when planning your night, and it’ll give you a more accurate idea of the probability of seeing the aurora at lower latitudes.
For those of us that live in the Far North or are visiting it between the latitudes of usual auroral activity, we’re lucky enough to be able to see at least something in the skies during even moderate auroral activity. But for those that live a lot further south, it takes a much stronger geomagnetic storm to be able to see anything at all. Aurora forecasting apps will use your location to let you know when a storm is strong enough that it might be visible at your latitude. There are always a few storms a year that are strong enough to cover the whole of Canada, and even show up in American cities as far south as Seattle, so it’s certainly not futile to install these apps if you’re living anywhere north of about 47 degrees.
In testing a variety of forecast apps, another thing that because clear to me was that most, if not all of the apps are simply pulling their data and forecasting information from the same NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center and NASA satellites. There’s nothing wrong with that data, but what it means is that when comparing a variety of aurora forecast apps that end up displaying the same data, what you are actually comparing is the app developer’s ability to create a useable, coherent mobile application that presents data in a clear, efficient way and offers you a range of notification options.
Essentially, even though they are offering up the same data and predictions, some apps do it in a much better way!
App #1 – Aurora Borealis Forecast & Alerts
This is a beautifully designed app that places all of the important information at your fingertips on the home screen. Not only do you get the current prediction data on that screen, but you also get the cloud cover forecast as well as sunrise/sunset times, moonrise/moonset times and an indication of the moon’s current phase. Considering how the sun and moon affect your ability to view and photograph the aurora, this is wonderfully useful information to have at a glance, and something I did not see from other apps.
As well as giving you an aurora prediction for your current location, you can also specify and keep a list of other locations, making it easier to plan a trip to a different spot to try and maximize your chances of photographic success. Being able to store a location list is a nice touch if you have a selection of semi-local spots you like to return to.
The 3-day forecast seen in the image above is available in the free version of the app, and that would have you covered for showing incoming storms caused by the CME’s I talked about at the beginning of the post. However, I also think it’s worth paying the $2.79 to unlock the 27-day forecast so that you can keep an eye on upcoming peaks caused by regular solar wind activity. This app also charges you to unlock notification settings, but they are included in that $2.79 price for the long-term forecast, or you can get notifications on their own for $1.39 per alert type. The options are comprehensive, but again, it’s laid out very well and works intuitively.
While I’m not planning to write about all these apps in order of superiority, I did find Aurora Borealis Forecast & Alerts to be the superior application in my testing. If you’re only going to buy one app, this is the one to get. (NOT an affiliate link).
Note: In the Apple App store the app calls itself Northern Light Aurora Forecast. In the Google Play store, the app calls itself Aurora Alerts – Northern Lights forecast. I personally think they should have chosen one brand name and stuck to it instead of playing silly search engine games, but what do I know. *shrug* At least the programmer understands UI design.
# 2 My Aurora Forecast & Alerts
On the Canadian App Store this app stood out for having a huge number of positive reviews compared to other aurora forecasting apps, and a higher rating. I suspect that much of this is down to the way it is monetized. Instead of having “In app purchases” something which seems to deter many people from downloading an app, this app has a separate ad-free Pro version available for $2.79, and the free version contains banner ads and a section dedicated to displaying information about aurora tours around the world. Free apps always seem to gather more downloads.
Monetizing the free version of the app using ads instead of in-app purchases does mean that this application offers notifications without having to pay a single cent, something which is definitely a rarity amongst these types of apps. Notifications can be adjusted to deliver only when certain forecast criteria are met, and whilst they are not the most comprehensive aurora/solar activity notifications I have seen, they do the trick for novice aurora seekers and from my testing I can confirm they do work.
Aside from the free notifications, the other positive feature of this app is the large map interface to show current aurora date from around the world. Apart from that, though, I didn’t think much of the design or user interface compared to other apps on the market. For example, compare the home screen of this app to the previous app!
If you are determined not to spend a single cent on your aurora watching then this app is a good choice. If you want more information and a better design, other apps would be a better choice.
#3 – Aurora Forecast
Available for iOS.
This app has been around for a very long time, as evidenced by the fact that they managed to snag the app name “Aurora Forecast” in the Apple App Store. As such, it’ll likely display at the very top of your app store search results when looking for aurora apps, but does that mean it’s any good? Certainly I found it interesting that it only had 4 ratings on the Canadian app store, compared to the 3000+ ratings of the previous app – My Aurora Forecast. Perhaps one is just better at doing their marketing!?
Despite the low number of reviews in the app store, I actually think this is a good app, but with a major caveat that I’ll get to…
I particularly like that all the data you need is on the single, first page dashboard, and you simply scroll down to get to deeper data. And when I say deeper data, I really mean it. Just take a look at the screenshots below to see what is available.
If you like to pour over data this might be the app for you, but as I said, there’s a caveat. As is common, the app charges an additional fee for notifications. Unfortunately they do not seem to work. They did not work for me, and judging by reviews, I’m not the only one with this issue. Compared to other aurora notification apps, the options for the broken notifications are basic at best, anyway.
If you don’t pay for the notifications and really want to dig into some data, this is a useful app, but you’ll want to use it alongside another app that does actually offer a good notification service.
#4 – Aurora Forecast & Alerts
Available on iOS.
This is a new app. At the time of writing this post it has only been available for a couple of months but it’s already impressing me. Perhaps more than some other apps, it’s acting like an information aggregator from the various NOAA forecasts and feeds, but that does give you a ton of information at your fingertips if you are getting into some really serious aurora research.
This app is certainly not for the casual aurora observer, and is probably overkill for 95% of people out there. Not only do you get some graphical predictive data, but you also get the actual space weather reports from NOAA. If you want to learn intricate details about the strength of solar winds and coronal mass ejections, this delivers various forecasts and solar event feeds into a single app for your consumption.
This is an app you might consult with before you head out on an aurora photo mission if you are a real space nerd (me), but it’s less useful in the field when you are trying to get a simple prediction of aurora visibility for your location, combined with weather and a basic forecast for the next couple of hours.
Simple Kp index push notifications are available in this app for free. That’s great, but I’d actually rather the developer charged a small fee with them to keep this project financially viable for the future! Happy to pay for good work if it keeps something going. Currently there doesn’t seem to be any monetization for this project, which, whilst admirable and clearly for the love of the topic, doesn’t guarantee the future of the app.
Bonus – Photopills
Photopills is the best photographer’s companion app on the market, and whilst it doesn’t have specific aurora forecasting features, it does have the best information on upcoming moon phases for different days of the coming month, as well as comprehensive shot planning features. Whenever I go on a photo mission, day or night, I pretty much always end up using Photopills for something so it would be remiss of me not to mention it in this post as well.
If you’re using one of the long-range aurora forecasts, you’ll definitely want to cross check that data with upcoming moon phases and moon rise/set times because it’s considerably harder to get great aurora photos when there is considerable moonlight.
Using an aurora forecasting app that can send you notifications about upcoming periods of high aurora activity is sure to help you capture the photos you are after. All of the apps that I have mentioned in this post have their individual merits, but if you just want the best one-app-does-it-all solution then I would recommend the application produced by aurora-alerts.com which is (confusingly) called Northern Light Aurora Forecast on the Apple App Store, and Aurora Alerts – Northern Lights forecast on the Google Play store. Same app, different names. Great, though!