What are the Northern Lights?
Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, Aurora Lights. Call them what you like, they are nature’s spectacular light show and can take your breath away. But what ARE the Northern Lights exactly?
The appearance of the Northern Lights is related to solar activity, namely explosions of plasma from the surface of the sun. When this happens, electrons and protons from the sun are blown towards the earth on the ‘solar wind’, taking about 2 days to reach us. That’s how the scientists watching the sun’s activity can predict when the Northern Lights are likely to make a strong showing. But any sightings are dependant on local weather conditions, particularly cloud cover.
There has been a lot of media coverage about the sun’s year solar cycle, claiming that solar activity peaks every 11 years thereby giving greater Northern Lights shows during this time. Despite scientists’ best efforts, no correlation has been found between the 11 year solar cycle and observations of the Northern Lights within the Aural Oval, the Northern Lights ring that circles the Magnetic North Pole. The Oval extends further south during the peak solar cycle, allowing the Lights to be seen in more areas, but the solar cycle itself does not increase the frequency or intensity of showings.
The Northern Lights are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with electrically charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. The displays appear in many colours including red, yellow, blue and violet although pale green and pink are the most common. The different colours are produced by different types of gas particles that are colliding. The most common aurora colour, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow.
For the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights you need to be above the Arctic Circle between October and early April. The further above the Arctic Circle you are, the better your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. If you are below the Arctic Circle you may still see the lights but they have to be especially strong to be seen that far south. When the solar activity is particularly strong, the northern lights have even been seen from the north of Ireland – but as a soft glow or ‘green sunset’, not the spectacular displays you can see in Norway. To see the lights you also need to be under the Aural Oval, which is the ‘ring’ the lights create around the earth’s magnetic north pole. They tend to show best between 8pm and 2am.
Northern Norway is one of the only easily accessible and habitable Northern Lights locations in the world situated under the Aural Oval and that’s why we have chosen it as our specialist Northern Lights destination.
What the Northern Lights are Not!
Over the centuries, there have been many myths and legends surrounding the Northern Lights.
In Norse mythology, the lights were the spears, armour and helmets of the warrior women known as the Valkyries. They rode on horseback, leading fallen soldiers to their final resting place at Valhalla. Alternatively, they were thought to be the spirits of old maids dancing in the sky and waving.
Many Inuit believed the Northern Lights were spirits of the dead playing a game with a walrus skull as the ball.
Indigenous Greenlanders believed that the lights were dancing spirits of children who had died at birth.
An ancient myth in Finland claims the lights were caused by a magical fox sweeping his tail across the snow, spraying it up into the sky.
The Sami people, who live in Lapland – which includes parts of Northern Norway, Finland and Sweden – believed that the lights were the energies of the souls of the departed. They also believed that if you whistled under the Northern Lights, you could summon them closer and they could whisk you away. The superstition remains to this day and many locals don’t like you to whistle under the Northern Lights.
Image credits: Visit Lyngen, Malangen Resort