A beginner’s guide to Norway’s aurora borealis

Northern Lights - Aurora borealisPhoto: Nicolas J Leclercq / Unsplash
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We’ve got you covered with general information about when, where, and how to see the northern lights, plus we’re exploring ancient myths inspired by them.

The Auroral Oval is an area near the north pole buzzing with sky-dancing glimmers. Norway’s version of the celestial spectacle is among the world’s best; half of the country is located in the Auroral Oval, after all.

Northern lights
The dancing greens of the northern lights. Photo: Johannes Groll / Unsplash

Why do the northern lights occur?

The northern lights are the result of collisions between the sun’s electrically charged particles with the Earth’s gaseous particles in the atmosphere.

The change in color is due to the types of gas particles colliding. The most common color, green, is produced by the collision of oxygen particles. Completely red auroras, the rarest, are produced by high-altitude oxygen, too.

Blue and purple auroras are produced by the collision of nitrogen particles, found in the exosphere.

The Earth’s tilted axis (at about 23.5 degrees) causes the Earth‘s seasons. The seasons give way to dazzling phenomena like polar nights (which can be lit up by the northern lights) and the midnight sun.

At the North Pole, total darkness can prevail for 24 hours a day for six full months during the winter. The further away from them you get, the shorter the northern lights last, and the brighter the sun gets.

Polar Zones
Far south of the Arctic Circle, and far north of the Antarctic Circle, you can’t see the northern lights at all. Photo: Stacey Huang

Northern lights myths

Aurora borealis has long invoked conflicting senses of mystery, confusion, and joy in humans who gazed up at the lights in search of answers as to why these peculiar phenomena occur. 

Ancient Greece and Rome

Though the Mediterranean is too far south to witness the aurorae, the phrase aurora borealis is actually derived from Greek words: “aurora”, meaning sunrise, and “boreas”, meaning wind.

In Greek mythology, it was believed that Aurora, the goddess of dawn and the sister of Helios (sun god), and Selene (moon goddess) would prance across the dawn sky in her chariot to alert her siblings of a new day.

The Greeks’ Italian counterparts, the Romans, also believed Aurora danced across the lightening sky, indicating the start of a new day.

Medieval Europe

Infrequently, when auroras would occur far south in Europe, they would oftentimes appear red, indicating intense solar activity.

Real causes unbeknownst, the medieval peoples of central Europe took the flaring lights to mean a bad omen or upcoming lifechanging event.

Interestingly, in Scotland and England, such red skies reportedly appeared just weeks before the French Revolution.

Ancient North America

Northern lights legends abounded in the ancient lands today known as North America.

The Cree Indians, for example, believed the lights were their dead ancestors’ spirits trying to communicate with their loved ones on earth.

The Algonquins believed the aurorae were a fire crafted by the creator, who was carefully watching over the humans below.

The ancient Nordic region

In Icelandic legends, the lights were associated with childbirth, and would supposedly relieve the pain of child delivery. However, it was thought that if the mother looked directly at the aurora, her baby would be born cross-eyed.

In Finland, the lights were thought to be caused by a mythical firefox who ran so quickly, sparks would fly off his tail.

In ancient Norse mythology, the lights were reflections from the armor of Valkyries, powerful and brave female warriors.

How does aurora borealis affect the Earth?

Before the science behind the auroras was known, the northern lights were subject of legend across the world. As we’ve seen, humans were unsure if this spectacle was a warning sign from angry gods, or a good omen send by benevolent deities.

As researchers now believe, because the lights are usually hundreds of miles above in the atmosphere, they pose no imminent threat to life on earth.

The aurorae can affect high-altitude radio waves; however. But only in extremely rare (as of now fully hypothetical) could they affect airplanes and on-ground power lines, pipelines, computer networks.

It’s important to keep in mind that the aurorae are actually a reminder that geomagnetic storms are coming, caused by solar storms. Solar storms can cause such explosions on the sun that the northern lights can be, albeit hardly ever, seen as far south as the UK.

To wrap things up, your life is not in danger from the northern light. In fact, it’ll probably be all the richer once you experience them.

Bodo northern lights
Does it get more picturesque than the aurora borealis? Source: Tommy Andreassen / Pixabay.

What is the best place to see the aurora borealis in Norway?

We’re divulging just a few – of many – picture-perfect places in Norway to see the northern lights.

Tromsø

The city of Tromso is also known as “the gateway to the Arctic”, largely due to its location in the Auroral Oval, the area with the highest chance to see the northern lights.

Without having to leave the city, you can head to Parkgata.

This street is close to the Kongsbakken park, which has no bright streetlights to take away from the magical light show.

North Cape and Svalbard

At the North Cape, you’re surrounded by natural beauty from the sky to the ground; everywhere you turn. The northernmost point near mainland Norway is, by definition, a fantastic place to chase the northern lights. 

It’s easy to reach the North Cape thanks to an underwater tunnel connecting the island of Magerøya to the mainland of Norway. Keep in mind, though, that during the winter, the cape can only be accessed by organized tours.

Above the North Cape is the untamed Svalbard archipelago, which is arguably the best place to see the northern lights in Norway.

Svalbard aurora
The northern lights shining over Svalbard. Photo: Noel Bauza / Pixabay

Lofoten Islands

A characteristic that distinguishes the Lofoten Islands from the hundreds of others (equally beautiful) spots in Norway to see the auroras is that their reflections flicker in the sea surrounding the archipelago, amplifying the beauty of the experience.

Similar to Tromso, Lofoten’s closeness to the Auroral Oval makes viewing the northern lights that much better.

Vesterålen

Just north of the Lofoten Islands lies the archipelago of Vesterålen. The area is one of the best in northern Norway to view aurora borealis – and locals can attest to that.

On a northern light safari, local guides will show you where the best viewpoints are in the district and even teach you how to capture the sights on camera – as it’s generally tricky given how fickle they can be. 

Bodø and Salten

In Bodø, where the northern lights dance from April to September and maybe even beyond, it’s encouraged to save yourself a spot on one of the city’s countless rooftop bars or to take an organized bus tour to a more secluded area for maximum effect.

Just two hours away sits another incredible hub for the auroras: Salten.

This low-key district purposefully offers little traffic and little light pollution in order for the northern lights and other various nature attractions to be the only focus.

When is the best time to see the northern lights in Norway?

Researchers have discovered auroral activity is cyclic, peaking every 11 years. With the last peak occurring in 2013, the next major burst in aurora activity is slated for 2024.

There are still countless opportunities within the 11-year timespans to view the northern lights in full glow, though.

Aurora borealis actually occur year-round, but they aren’t visible while the sun is up. That’s why far-north climates, and their long winter nights, provide the perfect northern lights viewing opportunities during the cold season.

Where else in the world do northern and southern lights occur?

The aurorae are centered around the North Pole and South Pole. Nearby lands can count themselves lucky in viewing the colorful lights each year.

These places include:

  • Alaska
  • Antarctica
  • Canada (particularly the Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories)
  • Finland
  • Greenland 
  • Iceland
  • Norway
  • Russia (northern regions, particularly Siberia)
  • Sweden
Norway northern lights
The northern lights dancing across the skies in Norway. Photo: John Huang / Pixabay

Have you seen the northern lights? Share your photos with us on Instagram for a chance to be featured! Simply post and tag #norwaytodaytravel

Source: Norway Today

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