The secrets of the Aurora Borealis
The Aurora Borealis is one of the most awe-inspiring natural occurrences on Earth. Also known as the northern lights, this phenomenon has had people’s jaws dropping for millions of years. But what are the secrets of these colourful polar lights? Let’s take a closer look.
What are the northern lights?
This cosmic light show begins on the sun itself where solar particles are whipped up to form a solar wind. This travels throughout the solar system and, eventually, comes across the Earth. As these highly charged particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere they reach mind-bending speeds of up to 45 million mph (72 million kph). The planet’s magnetic field then redirects the particles towards the poles. As they are deflected around the Earth, the particles release energy which causes the atmosphere to fluoresce. The different chemicals and gases in the atmosphere lead to the creation of different colors.
As the name suggests, the northern lights are found in the more northerly latitudes. You’re most likely to see them between 60° and 70° in an area often called the auroral oval. This includes Norway, Iceland, northern Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, Alaska and southern Greenland.
The aurora borealis in Norway
Norway is one of the best places to catch a glimpse of nature’s best light show. The ideal time to travel is between late September and late March when northern Norway is under the shadow of the Arctic winter. This means that the majority of places will get no sunlight during the day. While it may seem strange not to see the sun, it gives travelers the opportunity to view the northern lights at their best.
To get the most out of your northern lights experience, you want to be in an area with low light pollution. Thankfully, there are many places in northern Norway in the aurora belt that have great surroundings for viewing the lights.
Firmly planted within the Arctic Circle, Svalbard is a perfect example of life in the polar regions. The archipelago sits 900km north of Norway’s mainland and is about as remote as you can get. However, the town of Longyearbyen gives you a perfect base for your polar adventure.
Grab yourself a guide (this is a polar bear country after all) and head out on one of many northern lights excursions. Svalbard is one of the only places where you can see the ‘daytime northern lights’ in winter as the sun doesn’t rise at all. To make the most of your visit, why not try exploring a glacial cave or strap on some snowshoes for an Arctic adventure. If the cold is starting to get to you, don’t worry – there are plenty of places to warm up with a wide variety of restaurants, bars, and saunas.
Sitting just beside the small border Norway shares with Russia, Kirkenes is a tiny town with big appeal. Not only is it a fantastic location to see the northern lights, but you could also do so while staying in a snow hotel. Despite being surrounded by snow on the walls, floor, and ceiling, you’ll be completely cozy in this one-of-a-kind hotel.
While you’re waiting on the lights, you can fill your time with dog sledding, or try something different with a king crab safari. King crabs are cold-sea specialists and are a favorite meal around Kirkenes. With a leg span of up to 6 feet, there’s plenty of meat to go around!
Lofoten has a reputation for being beautiful on the ground, but with the northern lights on full display, it is just as stunning in the sky. When the lights appear here, they reflect on the ocean, transporting you to another world. A piece of living history, Lofoten is characterized by traditional fishing towns, picture-perfect mountain scenery, and a thriving art scene.
When you’re not gazing in awe at the natural phenomena happening above you, you could take a fishing trip around the archipelago or visit one of many local art galleries. The islands are big on culture so why not embrace this with a stay in a traditional fisherman’s cabin, or rorbu, right on the seafront?
The small city of Tromsø prides itself on being ‘the gateway to the Arctic’ from Norway. Sitting 400km north of the Arctic Circle, you can tell you’re deep into the polar territory. It is a particular favorite for northern lights chasers and as such there are plenty of tours running to give you the best chance at seeing them.
Tromsø is also a wonderful location for picturesque fjords and looming mountains, giving you plenty of other things to explore during your visit. Whilst you’re there you can take part in boat tours, dog sledding, and even experience the life of the indigenous Sami people.