Things to know about the northern lights
Mystery and wonder shroud the northern lights, otherwise known as the aurora borealis. Mesmerizing, stunning, other-worldly are just a few words used to describe the experience of watching this spectacular phenomenon. When conditions are favourable this fantastical display lights up the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, leaving all who catch a glimpse of this magical wonder, memories that will last forever.
Displays vary in intensity and duration, shape and form having no regulation, with each display totally unique. This natural phenomenon is hard to predict, yet extraordinary to witness!
“The strong green lights danced across the sky, rapidly changing in shape and colour. We were all totally engrossed in this magical experience and when the lights finally came to an abrupt end, we just stood there completely speechless…”
Ms Turner, Abisko Sky Station
Things you should know about the northern lights
The northern lights regularly occur within an area known as the auroral oval in Arctic and sub-Arctic. Parts of Iceland, Sweden, Finland and Norway all fall within this aurora zone and are easily accessible from the UK. Travelling further afield, Canada and Alaska also offer good opportunities for viewing the aurora and can be combined with tailor made travel.
The aurora is a natural phenomenon so there are no guarantees. As such location should be a major consideration when selecting a northern lights holiday. Don’t be lured by cheap offers of weekend breaks in Reykjavik, which include a short excursion to ‘see the lights’. You need to be outside of built-up areas and light pollution, not just for a few hours, but the for the duration of your holiday. Many of the hotels we use offer a wake-up service if the lights make an appearance during the night, and the more remote you are the more spectacular the show will be!
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, appear when solar wind particles collide with air molecules in the earth’s atmosphere, transferring their energy into light. Solar flares are explosions ejected by the sun. These flares contain charged particles and if they head our way, carried on a solar wind, earth’s magnetic fields divert them. Most disappear into space but if some enter our upper atmosphere, around the Polar Regions where those magnetic fields converge, then these charged particles react with the gases found there.
These magnetic fields create auroral ovals around the top and bottom of our planet which move and distort as the earth rotates and solar flare activity increases. You have to be within an auroral oval for a chance of seeing this particle/gas reaction hence why you need to travel north.
Displays can vary in intensity – from a glowing curtain of greenish yellow lights, dancing in the distance to a spectacular, multi-coloured fusion stretching across the sky. Most people lucky enough to see the aurora witness a display of neon green lights but if you are really lucky then that display might be yellow and red, or even multi-coloured.
The differences depend on two main factors: what type of gas is reacting with the solar particles and at what altitude this activity is taking place. Most of it occurs 100-200km above the Earth – a level where ‘excited’ nitrogen atoms glow green and blue. And above 200km, oxygen atoms glow red when reacting with charged particles from the Sun.
Sightings of the northern lights can never be guaranteed, even when the conditions seem just right. Most people appreciate the northern lights are a natural phenomenon and we can’t turn them on for you! But what we can do is get you to locations across the northern hemisphere where sightings are generally known to be better than anywhere else. And what’s more, those places have plenty of things to see and do during the day whilst you are not star gazing.
Patience is the key as well as a clear, cloudless winter’s night. It is important to be away from any sources of artificial light, such as street lighting. Displays can occur any time from around 5pm but most activity tends to be after 11pm – fortunately on many of our holidays you can opt to be woken during the night so you don’t miss a thing! Sightings not only vary in intensity but in duration too, from just minutes to sometimes hours.
The Sunspot Cycle is linked to sightings of the northern lights. Sunspots are temporary dark patches which are cooler than the rest of the surface of the sun and when these increase in number, so too does the amount of solar flare activity and the subsequent possibility of auroral displays. This doesn’t mean you won’t see displays during other periods of the cycle, as activity is constant, just that displays at the peak may be more intense or more frequent.
The cycle is generally around 11 years but can extend to 15 years sometimes with a prolonged peak.
The darkest period which is between November and February offer longer evenings for gazing at the sky, while the strongest lights normally occur during October and March between 9pm and 1am. They are also seen as early as late August and as late as mid April ideal for combining with days spent exploring.
The phases of the moon don’t affect aurora activity, but the moonlight can reduce the intensity of the displays. It is often mentioned that full moon should be avoided due to higher light concentration, however it is one of the most magical experiences to see the full moon together with the northern lights dancing across the sky. During a new moon the sky is slightly darker, but it is very much a matter of personal opinion, which of these sightings is the best.
Myths and Legends
- The name ‘aurora borealis’ is credited to Galileo and means ‘northern dawn’.
- Some Northern American Inuit call the aurora ‘aqsarniit’ (literally ‘football players’) because they believe that the lights are ancestral spirits kicking around the head of a walrus.
- The old Norse explanation was that the strange, shimmering green lights were old maids dancing in the heavens.
- Vikings believed the glowing lights were reflections from the shields of the Valkyries, maidens who transported fallen warriors to Valhalla.
- Scandinavian fisherman called the sightings Herring Flash as they saw them as a sign of rich catches, believing them to be caused by light reflecting off vast shoals of lively herring.
- Modern day myths exist too – the Japanese believe that babies conceived under the northern lights will become intellectuals.
Discover the World have been Nordic holiday experts for 35 years and offer an unrivalled collection of independent and escorted itineraries focusing on the northern lights.