With the most viewing locations in Scandinavia, Arctic Norway is one of the best places on earth to observe the striking natural phenomenon officially called Aurora Borealis. Norway's northern lights are amongst the world's brightest, and they can be seen against an Arctic backdrop of wild snow-capped peaks in places such as Tromsø, Alta, Svalbard, Finnmark and the Lofoten Islands. In 2012, 40 percent of the tourists visiting Tromsø during the winter season reported the northern lights as their main reason to go.
The lights appear most often in late fall and winter/early spring, and travelers tend to concentrate their trips to Northern Norway between October and March. The most favoured time of day to see the lights is between 6:00 pm and 10:00 pm.
- The folk legends of the northern lights
- Hunting down the best places to see the Arctic lightshow
- The strange and exotic patterns of the northern lights
- Activities beneath the world's greatest lightshow
- The northern lights and the Solar Maximum, which occurs every 11 years, making December 2013 an ideal time for a visit.
- In Johanna Lumley's footsteps hunting for the northern lights
The science behind the northern lights
But what exactly are the northern lights? They are created by solar winds that interact with charged particles in the earth's magnetic field to create the effect of natural lighting in the atmosphere, approximately 100 kilometres above the earth. The air lights up in a similar way to what happens inside a fluorescent light tube. The colours reveal which gases are present in the atmosphere. The most common yellow-green colour comes from oxygen, and the pinkish red colour comes from nitrogen. The violet often seen at the lower edge of the northern lights is due to nitrogen, as is most of the blue colouring.
Predicted to be the best of a decade
Scientists predict that a solar peak, known as the Solar Maximum, will boost the chances of witnessing the northern lights during winter 2013. The Solar Maximum occurs once every 11 years and is marked by increased levels of magnetic activity so boosting the chances of seeing the lights in all their natural majesty. The current period of solar maximum activity has already had one peak towards the end of 2011/early 2012. Hence there have been reports of spectacular sightings involving the full range of colours associated with the phenomenon for the past two winters there. With the second peak now coming at the end of this year, strong sightings are set to continue this winter and into the winter of 2014/2015.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, the northern lights' spectacle has given rise to as many legends as there have been people watching. Symbols linked to the northern lights are found on the Sami shaman's drum. The phenomenon has several different names in Sami. It is, for instance, known as Guovssahas, which means "the light which can be heard". The northern lights were traditionally associated with sound by the Sami, the indigenous people of Norway. During the Viking Age, the northern lights were said to be the armour of the Valkyrie warrior virgins, shedding a strange flickering light.
The art of patience
When planning to see the northern lights, you must remember that you are at the complete mercy of nature. In Troms and Finnmark, the northern lights can be seen on roughly one in two clear winter nights. If the northern lights are strong enough, they can be seen against a twilight sky, although a darker background sky is preferable. It's therefore better to be away from the glare of streetlights and cars in order to hunt down your own lightshow. To be on the safe side, it's advisable to stay in the northern lights area at least a week, preferably two.
See the Aurora Forecast
Activities under the northern lights
Luckily there are plenty of activities to keep people entertained while waiting for the Aurora Borealis to make her spectacular entrance.
Driving a snowmobile through the arctic landscapes is a magical feeling of freedom in itself, and combined with the northern lights, it is the experience of a lifetime. Several operators offer such snowmobile tours in Northern Norway. One recommended alternative is a guided snowmobile tour from Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel. There is a similar option in Kirkenes.
Northern lights lectures
Polarlightcenter in Laukvik on Austvågøya in the Lofoten Islands offers presentations, information, courses and exhibitions. The centre is run by the enthusiastic northern lights researchers Rob and Therese, who give visitors information as well as a comfortable observation point.
There are various dog sledding tours where travellers can learn to master their own dog team before spending an unforgettable evening under the northern lights. Some trips even include the chance to spend the night in a Sami tent. Tours can be booked on various place in Tromsø, Alta and Karasjok and the package usually includes warm clothes, food and drinks and transfer.
Experience dog sledding in this film.
An absolutely fabulous trip to see the northern lights
Joanna Lumley, "Patsy" from the much-loved BBC series Absolutely Fabulous, had dreamt of seeing the northern lights since she was a child. And finally she got to live out her dream. In a splendid BBC film, she travels across Norway in search of the Aurora Borealis. For Joanna, as for many others who get to experience the northern lights, it was an altogether emotional experience. See a clip from the film here.
Chasing the northern lights
Joanna Lumley´s guide Kjetil Skogli, offers rides from Tromsø. Travellers can also go in search of the mystical lights starting from Alta with the company
Travellers how to catch the northern lights on their camera, joining an organised outing with Creative Vacations.
There is also the Northern Lights Bus in Tromsø who changes their route according to the forecast.
More activities under the northern lights.
How to snap the northern lights
- Use a digital SLR camera with a remote control release
- Use a tripod
- Deactivate the flash and automatic settings
- Choose an ISO setting between 100 and 400. The lens should be in manual focus mode and set to infinity
- Use a long shutter speed, for example 30 seconds or more
- An aperture of f/2.8 or better
- It is best to use a wide-angle lens, the faster the better
- Be patient and dress warmly – there could be a lot of waiting around but your hard work will pay off
Did you know?
The official name of the northern lights phenomenon is the "aurora borealis". It is named after the meeting of "Aurora", the Roman goddess of the dawn, and "Borealis", the Greek god of the north wind. The aurora borealis has naturally been the subject of many myths and superstitious beliefs through history.
Traditionally, the northern lights have also been seen as a sign of bad luck. The most widely known ´no-no´ in Northern Norway is to wave, sing or whistle at the northern lights. People used to believe this would provoke the spirits to come and whisk you away. Many Sami people would keep their families and children indoors during the display, or if they were outside they would cover up and try to hide from the rays.
The height of the displays can occur up to 620 miles, although most are between 50-120 miles. In southern latitudes the aurora borealis is called aurora australis. "Nordlys" is the Norwegian term for the northern lights, and also the name of Northern Norway's biggest newspaper.
Every year since 1988, Tromsø has been submerged in a musical extravaganza during the last week of January. The Northern Lights Festival presents top artists from a wide variety of genres ranging from early music to modern, from opera to jazz, from chamber music to symphonic orchestras.