So what are the Northern Lights?

Martin Andersen Photo

Martin Andersen

02 November 2016

Time to Read


What are the Northern Lights?

Although at first glance it’s easy to ascribe this celestial phenomenon to magic (which of course is real!), there’s a much more scientific explanation for what happens when the sky is suddenly draped in colourful shades. The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, appear when particles from the atmosphere hit particles released by solar winds. The lights then appear either as curtains on the horizon or as dancing shades, known as “active aurora”. The colour can change, but the most common is green: it’s caused by oxygen molecules and occurs at a much lower altitude than other colours. Pink and red, rarer still than the green lights, are much harder to spot, regardless of what colour you see though, you’re in for a show where the different nuances dance gracefully across the dark canvas of the night sky. A fun fact for the geographically minded: the Northern Lights have an almost identical sibling in the form of the Aurora Australis, which can be seen along the southern hemisphere. While both lights are caused by particles colliding in the atmosphere, we wouldn’t hold it against you if you’d prefer to believe that they are magical— after all, so do we.


A trip around mythology

As the Northern Lights are so spectacular and far-reaching, it’s little wonder that various mythologies have come up with explanations for the cause of the phenomenon. For the Greeks, Aurora was the sister of the sun and the moon, while some Native American tribes believed it was their departed friends and relatives who danced across the sky. In the Nordic countries, where the lights are usually seen, colourful myths explain their wondrous appearance. Finnish folklore holds that a mythical fire-fox once ran so quickly across the sky that it caused sparks to fly, while in Sweden the Lights were hailed as a good omen sent from the gods, predicting a good harvest and plentiful fish caught in fishermen’s nets. In Norse mythology, the Vikings saw the glimmering night sky as a reflection of the Valkyries, mythical riders who carried fallen soldiers to their heavenly afterlife, Valhalla.  


When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?

For the best chance to witness the Northern Lights, you’ll need a cold, clear night sky. We’d recommend staying up between 10pm and 4am and arming yourself with steely patience and reserve. The Arctic Circle is submerged in darkness during the winter months, so you’re most likely to find the lights illuminating the night from September to mid-April at the latest. Late winter and early spring see the Arctic Circle less plagued by pesky clouds, and although a guarantee can never be given for this elusive natural wonder, these are really the months with the best odds. Should you happen to be visiting the top of the northern hemisphere during the summer months, you’re likely to experience an entirely different natural occurrence. Just like the sun disappears almost entirely during winter, it becomes a constant presence throughout the summer months. Experiencing a fully lit-up midnight sky is a singular experience, second only to the magnificent colours of the Northern Lights.


Where is it best to see the lights?

You now know what the lights are, and you’ve waited until winter — but where do you go to see them? The Northern Lights have been observed as far south as New Orleans, but while this charming US city has much to offer, we wouldn’t really recommend it as the starting point for a glimpse of the lights. For the best opportunity to watch the phenomenon, you need to be in a place where little to no distractions exist to obscure the view. City lights, clouds or a sky that isn’t entirely black will prevent you from getting a good view. To make things more complex, the lights never stay in one place and can therefore be unpredictable in their appearance. That said, if you find yourself within the Arctic Circle in Northern Scandinavia, then you’re in with a good chance to spot this mysterious natural wonder. Holidaying in places like Reykjavik, Tromsø, Kiruna and Rovaniemi will serve as a great base from which to hunt the Northern Lights. Head out into the wilderness, away from the lit-up streets and gleaming ski resorts, and arm yourself with warm clothes, something hot to drink, and lots and lots of patience:  hopefully, you’ll be rewarded with a celestial show unlike anything you’ve ever seen.


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