Auroras 101: How it works, best places to see the spectacle
Thursday, December 7, 2017, 14:16 - Aurora is the Latin word for 'dawn' and refers to the Roman Goddess Aurora. Borealis is the Greek name for the north wind. It was Pierre Gassendi in the 1600s who first put the name aurora borealis to this amazing phenomenon. This is why we call them the northern lights.
How it works
The northern lights are nature’s very own spectacular light show. These dancing curtains of light occur when charged particles from the sun are dragged into the atmosphere by Earth's magnetic field. Here, they collide with nitrogen and oxygen atoms, releasing flashes of colored light.
The aurora borealis isn't the only light show the universe has to offer our planet. The Southern Hemisphere has its own version of the northern lights called the aurora australis or southern lights. What color?
The color of the northern lights depends on three factors:
- What atom(s) the charged particles collide with.
- The speed of the collision.
- At what altitude.
Because the composition of our atmosphere varies, different colored auroras occur at different heights. A collision with oxygen atoms create green and red colors whilst nitrogen atoms causes a blue/purple or deep red light.
Red lights typically occur at altitudes higher than 112 miles - but when the sun is "stormy" they can be seen at altitudes between 56 to 62 miles.
Strong green lights typically occur at altitudes between 75 and 112 miles. Purple lights typically occur at the altitudes below 75 miles.
The aurora borealis isn't the only light show the universe has to offer our planet. The Southern Hemisphere has its own version of the northern lights called the aurora australis, or southern lights.
Charged particles from the sun are pulled towards the North and South Poles due to the Earth's magnetic field. The electrical and magnetic forces clash with each other in shifting combinations. This is what causes the 'dancing' illusion.
The auroras can occur throughout the day, but can only be seen by the naked eye at night. Magnetic midnight is the best time to spot the northern lights. It usually occurs some hour(s) before conventional midnight and is when the viewer, the North Pole and the sun are all in alignment.
You are most likely to see the northern lights during late autumn, winter periods and early spring, from as early as September to end of March.
In general, the best place to see the northern lights is under a clear and dark sky, away from the lights of the city and traffic. It's also important to have a clear view towards the northern horizon. Make sure you pop outside half an hour before the actual lights so that your eyes get used to the dark!
Here are some recommendations of where to stay in each country:
1. North Cape, Norway
You cannot get much further north than North Cape in Norway. The only dry land between you and the North Pole is the Svalbard archipelago. The cape is located above the Arctic Circle and is a great place to experience the Aurora. By standing on the mountain plateau that ends in a 1007-foot high cliff that plunges into the sea, your first meeting with Aurora will be nothing but exceptional.
2. Abisko, Sweden
Most known for its iconic national park, this little Swedish town is located 121 miles into the Arctic Circle. If you stay for a minimum of four nights during the season, you are almost guaranteed to see the Northern Lights. The place is often considered one of the most affordable destinations for spotting one of nature's great displays. Make sure to visit the Aurora Sky Station. Situated 2,953 feet above sea level in an area with very few distractions of light or sound, the Sky Station is named the best place on the planet to experience Northern Lights by Lonely Planet.
3. Utsjoki, Finland
The further north you go, the more guaranteed you are to spot the magnificent northern lights. Being the northernmost town in the EU, the remote and mystical Utsjoki is a great place to experience it all. The town is located in Lapland, close to the Norwegian border. The chances of spotting the northern lights in Utsjoki is amongst the highest. Surrounded by wild and peaceful nature, there is no wonder that spotting the aurora here is truly unique.
4. Reykjavik, Iceland
The Northern Light is one of the main reasons people are visiting Iceland every year. The destination is both affordable and very accessible. Here, the northern lights tourism has grown tremendously over the past few years. Despite being a small and remote nation, the breathtaking and picturesque landscape make Iceland a country travelers are eager to embrace. Close to several famous Game of Thrones filming locations such as Thingvellir National Park and Vik, a trip to Reykjavik can offer exciting sightseeing and an exotic weekend getaway.
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Myths and Legends
The northern lights have inspired many myths and legends over the years. Here are a few:
In ancient China, people believed the northern lights were a dragon's fiery breath flashing across the sky.
In Sami mythology, it’s considered bad luck to whistle at the Northern lights. It’s seen as disrespectful as most people believe that the northern lights are old souls or Gods in the sky. It's also believed that if you wave at the lights, they'll take you away.
The Finnish word 'revontulet' (in English: 'fox fires'), comes from the old belief that foxes running over the tundra wag their furry tails and emit sparks on the sky.
Soldiers in medieval Europe thought that a red aurora borealis meant the outbreak of war.
In Finnmark, Norway, people believed that if a child was conceived during the northern lights it would gain special abilities.