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Facts and fiction about the northern lights

What are the northern lights really about?
Many are fascinated by the aurora borealis, but few know the science and myths related to the natural light show in the sky.
Northern lights over Grøtfjord in Kvaløya, Northern Norway
Northern lights over Grøtfjord, Kvaløya.
Photo: Gaute Bruvik / Visitnorway.com
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But the phenomenon can also be explained in a tangible way: We have the sun to thank for everything, also the auroras, and during large solar explosions and flares, huge quantities of particles are thrown out from the sun and into deep space.

The maths of the northern lights

Here’s where it gets really interesting: When the particles meet the Earth’s magnetic shield, they are led towards an oval around the magnetic North Pole where they interact with the upper parts of the atmosphere, the layers of ozone, oxygen, and other stuff that protect the earth. The energy which is then released is sent to us as northern lights.

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But never take the northern lights for granted. It’s as much a natural phenomenon as the weather. Its appearance and intensity are controlled by the sun’s activity and its location depends on the earth’s magnetic field.

The northern light appears in a belt, or an oval, which is situated above the Earth in a regular position in relation to the sun. The lights will usually be visible over mainland Northern Norway during the night and over Svalbard during the daytime. When solar activity increases, the northern lights can also be seen further south in Norway.

Explaining the northern lights

Interested in learning more about aurora’s origin? This video will explain the fascinating details of the northern lights.

Aurora borealis is far from a new phenomenon. The spectacle of the northern lights is described by early storytellers and has given rise to many legends. Symbols linked to the northern lights are for instance found on the Sami shamanistic drum. The phenomenon has several different names in Sami, amongst them “Guovssahas” which means “the light which can be heard”. It’s poetry in motion.

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When and where? There’s no exact answer, but …

It is often said that the northern parts of Norway are the best places in the world to see the northern lights, as this part of the country lies just below the auroral oval. Well, if we’re honest that is only a partial truth, as ­the lights can be just as visible from destinations outside of Norway.

But our bold claim is that Northern Norway definitely is amongst the most comfortable and interesting places to see the lights, as hundreds of thousands of people live in this huge geographical area, offering a variety of hotels and activities to keep you busy.

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It’s important to remember that aurora can be a bit of a diva, and she will only start the show when she feels the time is right. Patience is a virtue, also when chasing the northern lights. But to maximize your chances of a sighting, know that the lights are at their most frequent in late autumn and winter/early spring (from September to late March), during the hours from 6 pm to 1 am.

However, Aurora borealis has its climax when the weather is cold and dry, usually from December. Some will tell you that the driest weather and the clearest sky is found inland, but that isn’t always true.

With strong eastern wind, the coast can be clearer than inland areas. Avoid the full moon, though, as it will make the experience considerably paler.

A cool northern lights visualization

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Lights, camera … action!

When the light show brightens up the sky, the moment is definitely worth freezing. The 27-year-old photographer Christian Hoiberg has loads of experience with eternalising aurora’s fleeting beauty in images.

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