“No pencil can draw it, no colours can paint it
and no words can describe it in all its magnificence.”
Truer words were never spoken when describing the beauty of the northern lights. In past centuries, when these mysterious lights made a rare appearance over the skies of central Europe, the people cowered in fear, hid their faces from the sky and cried out that war, plague and death had surely been foretold. Today, thousands trek to the northern regions of the country, or fly thousands of miles to the north, for just a glimpse of nature’s most magnificent aerial display.
A glorious display
The northern lights are infinitely changeable. Sometimes, they stretch from one horizon to another, in an unending wave front sweeping across the sky. At other times, they dot the skies with ever-changing coronas. They can shimmer as a single, ghostly shade of pale, or glow in vibrant, unearthly colours. Red, blue, green, yellow and every shade in between, the colours seem to writhe across the sky. Sometimes, the lights seem untouchably distant; other times, they seem almost to reach down and caress your face.
The northern lights have been around since the birth of the world. They painted the skies above the heads of the dinosaurs and they inspired beautiful tales among the early humans who saw them. There are hundreds of legends about the lights, told among the people of the north who see them. Among the Norwegians, the lights were the souls of old maids, dancing and waving in the sky. Among the Inuit of Greenland and Northern Canada, the lights was the realm of the dead, and when the lights changed rapidly, it meant that dead friends were trying to contact their living relatives. Whatever the belief however, a common element in all the legends was the strong sense of awe towards the lights and a touch of fear beneath the awe.
The science behind the mystery
Scientifically, these aerial displays are known as aurora borealis. They have a southern counterpart, theaurora australis, which can be seen in areas near to Antarctica, but most people are more familiar with the northern lights.
For thousands of years, wise men and scientists struggled to find an explanation for the aurora. Only recently has it become clear that the lights are intricately linked to the sun and the atmosphere of the planet. The sun produces constant clouds of charged particles that sweep away in great waves from the fiery star. These clouds are known as solar winds and brush past the earth at its northern and southernmost extremes, most importantly within a constantly moving oval centred on the earth’s magnetic poles known as the auroral oval. In this region, when the interactions are just right, some of these particles drift down, colliding with gases in the atmosphere and causing the gases to glow. It is this constantly changing collision in the atmosphere that we see as the fascinating northern lights.
Unlike much natural phenomenon, the aurora borealis never lost its mystery and appeal once an explanation for it had been established. Despite knowing its origins, the aurora is simply too ethereal, too mysteriously beautiful to be so carelessly dismissed. Indeed, knowing the science behind the northern lights often only serves to increase the awe felt upon viewing the display.
The best time to see the Northern Lights
Chasing the aurora borealis is chancy business because it is so unpredictable. Scientists can foretell with a fair degree of accuracy whether there will be a display in the next few days and how spectacular it will likely be, but beyond that, the predictions get steadily more inaccurate.
The absolutely best place to see the aurora borealis is from the space station orbiting the earth, for the astronauts are able to see the northern lights as they appear from above. Most amazingly, they can also observe the auroras of other planets!
For those who aren’t fortunate enough to be astronauts however, the best way to view the northern lights is to head for the northern regions of Scandinavia or Canada, perhaps even Siberia or Greenland. The reason for this northern trek is because the aurora borealis is far more intense and frequent in the higher latitudes: in Northern Norway for example, vibrant displays can be seen on almost every clear, dark night, while in Northern Scotland, they can only be seen about once a month and around the Mediterranean, a weak display takes place only about once a decade, perhaps even once a century.
To figure out the best time to see the display, keep an eye on the sun. The aurora borealis reflects the sun’s activity: it closely follows the 11-year cycle of sunspot activity and the greater the sunspot, the more vibrant the display. There is also plenty of invaluable information on the Internet, detailing where, when and how strong the aurora borealis is likely to be.
An aurora borealis display can actually take place at any moment, even during the day. Unfortunately, it is impossible to see the aurora during the day because the same sun that produces the northern lights also produces enough sunlight to overwhelm it. Darkness and clear skies are required, which can be somewhat tricky in the land of the midnight sun — during the summer, the sun really never sets but sits just above the horizon.
The best time to go north is from September to late March, when the sunlight is much weaker. For some unknown reason, the aurora borealis is usually at its most spectacular during the early spring and late autumn. Seeing the northern lights is often a matter of choosing the likeliest location and waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more.
The patient watcher is often rewarded with a beautiful display. Patience is no substitute for sheer blind luck however, as witnessed by the people of Helsinki, the capital city in the southernmost part of Finland, who on the nights of 6th and 7th April 2000 were treated to the most magnificent aurora borealis display in living memory. Thousands stood in the streets and gazed up at the sky in the small hours of the morning, as vivid curtains of multi-coloured light shimmered overheard. Pekka Parviaien, a leading photographer of celestial displays, used up 19 rolls of film that night and remarked that in 29 years of photography, he had never seen anything as awe-inspiring as the northern lights of that cold spring night.